Tragedy and Memory

What is it about tragedy that makes the memory so poignant?

I suppose that every generation has an event that is cemented in the collective conscious memory. Ask anyone old enough and they’ll tell you minute details about where they were when they heard the news about the President Kennedy’s assassination. A generation later would remember the Challenger disaster. My generation remembers the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

Watching the second plane hit the tower. Seeing desperate people jump to a preferred death to escape death. Watching the towers fall almost in slow motion. These are vivid images that you and I cannot escape. The memory is so vivid that I call smell the English classroom where I was sitting. What is it about tragedy that makes the memory so poignant? Your memories testify with mine, and are intensified.

September 11th is one of those events that would be horrifying to forget, but is agonizing to recall. Maybe that’s why we tend to describe where we were and what we were doing at the time, instead of the sickening helpless feeling we felt watching thousands of people die.

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.” -J.R.R. Tolkien.

Oh I wish that I could remember pleasant times as vividly as I could remember the tragic times.

The Southern Simile

Do you have a favorite Southern saying?

You could hardly call me a well traveled man. I have been to Washington D.C. though, and that’s got to count for something. In the course of my limited travels I have taken note that Southerners, especially those who have traveled less than even me, are unique communicators. They have ways of describing things that are marvelously effective. In short, Southerners are masters of simile. 

For instance, “Heavy as a widow’s heart”. Instead of giving an exact measurement, you get an idea of something with an unfathomable weight that also speaks to your emotions. Most of the Southern story tellers I know have enough of these pithy descriptions to sink a ship. It’s usually this aspect of their tales that draw the greatest reaction from a listener. I’ve done my best to curate a short list of my favorite similes to help those who might want to exercise the poetic nature of language.

-Ugly as pootin’ in church. It doesn’t get much uglier than that.

-Mean as a snake.

Mean as a striped lizard. Be sure to pronounce striped with two syllables.

-Broke as a convict.

-High as a cat’s tail.

-Nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers.

-Colder than a mother-in-law’s love. To be fair, my Mother-in-law is great.

-Cold as a well rope.

-Hot as blue blazes.

-Crooked as a dog’s leg.

-Naked as a jay bird.

Strong as half an acre of garlic.

Tough as woodpecker lips.

-Goofy as an eight day clock.

Crazy as an outhouse rat.

-Poor as Job’s turkey.

-Wild as a team of goats. This is something that you say about children.

-Screaming like a coon hunter.

Slow as molasses.

-Rough as a cob. Takes on a new meaning given the fact that corn cobs were once used as toilet paper.

Hang in there like a hair in a biscuit. 

-Dark as a sack of black cats. 

Pretty as a pair of new shoes.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of similes, they sometimes only come to me when I need them. I’m sure some are coming to you right now and I’d like to hear them.

Thank you for reading. If it made you laugh, or cry, or remember someone that you love please share this with a friend. -Zane Wells

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Mexican Food and Mariachi Bands

“Every once in a while even the cook needs a break.”

Going out to eat when I was a child was a treat. There were no restaurants in the town that I grew up in, so most of the time Mom cooked. But every once in a while even the cook needs a break, and occasionally we’d take a trip as a family to a restaurant. When it was decided that we were going out to eat,
Dad, not being very high maintenance was always ready to go before anyone. He would make his way to the van as soon as he was ready and sit behind the wheel, expecting everyone else to be just as ready as him. Generally the rest of us kids followed after him as the bathroom became available.

“There’s three bathrooms in this house, why do y’all insist on using mine?” Dad would lament. I never had a good answer for him. We’d go sit in the van and wait with Dad. If someone, most likely Mom, but occasionally a child, was lagging behind, Dad would send one of us in to check on their progress. “Go tell them to hurry up.” He would say.

We’d all watch toward the door in hopes that the late person would appear so that we could go. Sometimes Mom would walk out the door and down the steps before turning around to go back inside, giving us a false sense of hope. Other times she’d tidy something on the porch as she was leaving. “What is she doing?” Dad would ask in an exasperated voice. When everyone was finally loaded up it was time to debate about where we were going to eat. I’ll spare you that ordeal. I was never disappointed when we decided to go to the Mexican Restaurant.

The Guadalajara in Pell City: The Mexican Restaurant. I was half grown before I realized that there was more than one Mexican Restaurant. On Friday nights they had a Mariachi Band that would go from table to table in full regalia and play requests for tips. Besides a bunch of Spanish Songs that I have no way of identifying, their repertoire included various Elvis tunes along with Wooly Bully, Foggy Mountain Break Down, Tequila, and my personal favorite, In the Yungle the Mighty Yungle . The whole family would laugh. That was genuine entertainment.

One time the band leader and trumpeter handed me an egg shaker during an upbeat number. “Shake amigo! Shake!” He exhorted. So I guess I can say that I had a short stint in a mariachi band.

Once I spilt tea in Zach’s lap almost immediately after the waiter brought our drinks. Which kind of ruined the night, at least for Zach. It was the only bad experience that I can remember having at the Guadalajara. The staff got him cleaned up pretty quick though, which confirms my belief that Mexican restaurants have some of the best service out there. We laugh about it now, so I guess we can’t really call that a bad experience.

As I grew older my order changed from cheeseburger (hey it was good), to quesadilla, to tacos. I’ll eat just about anything now. Except raw tuna eyeballs, or stuff like that. The Guadalajara, despite any effort to Americanize their menu, was my introduction to exotic cultural food. I suppose it starts with chips and queso, that’s the gateway food. Then one day, maybe because all the queso is gone, or perhaps you’re just curious, but you try chips and salsa. The next thing you know you’re ordering fajitas and stinking up your Sunday clothes with the greasy smoke that billows off the sizzling plate. Face it, you’re hooked. You don’t even go to Taco Bell anymore.

Since my tastes have been refined, I usually look for authentic food, whether it’s Mexican, Chinese, Thai, or Barbecue. These restaurants are out there if you look. They may not have the best façade or marketing, but the food is genuine. And genuine food is best food. I guess the only thing better is eating just about anything with your family. And perhaps a mariachi band.

Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

Film Photography

Do you remember taking photographs on film?

I love yard sales. Previously loved merchandise. Everything you never knew you couldn’t live without can be found at a yard sale. Part of the fun of a yard sale is digging through the junk to find the treasure. Sometimes it’s only digging through junk. Even when you do find treasure, it sometimes only seems like treasure because the junk makes it look better. This is how I got back into film photography.

I have a recurring dream that I find a cache of treasure (usually guitars) for sale dirt cheap at some yard sale or thrift store. From time to time it comes true. Like the time I found a bunch of pocket knives at an estate sale. Today I’m thinking about the time I stumbled upon the motherlode of film camera equipment at the church yard sale. The yard sale itself had a half acre of merchandise spilling off of tables and onto tarps. There was an entire table full of lenses, filters, flashes, and bulbs. On the edge of the table was whicker basket full of film cameras. My mind went back to photography class when I spotted a pristine Canon A-1 Camera with a 50mm lens. I picked it up and instinctively focused the lens on one of the yard sale characters walking around. I advanced the film lever and clicked the shutter release button. There was the unmistakable whir of a shutter quickly opening and closing. A sound that even kids born in the 21st century will recognize from their iPhone camera.

I was hooked. Camera in hand, I walked over to Sis. Tina Updike, who was running the cash register that day. “How much for the camera Sis. Tina?” I asked. She frowned at me like she’d never seen a camera before she asked, “Is $10 too much?” I quickly paid for the camera before I had a chance to talk myself out of taking up a new hobby. I also went and scooped a couple of lenses, another SLR camera, and an enlarger so I could develop my own film.

As I fiddled with the camera and did a little bit of research to refresh my new found venture in to film photography, I began to think abstractly how film photography is more like life than the convenient digital photography that has cemented it’s place in our culture over the past twenty or so years. There was a time when cameras were investments, now they are just features on our phones. Camera phones have made us all photographers.

Think about when you were a kid. Unless you don’t remember having to take pictures with a camera, take your undeveloped film to Wal-Mart, shop around for an hour until you could finally pick up an envelope of actual pictures. Not only did you have to purchase film, but you had to pay for the pictures before you could decide that you were a terrible photographer. You kept the pictures anyway, and couldn’t wait to show them to your friends. The next time you had company, you’d pass around your pictures and you’d all laugh at the ones that didn’t come out like you wanted. The few pictures that came out great got an elevated frame or refrigerator status.

The first roll of film that I shot with my Canon A-1 was interesting. There were 24 frames. It made me stop and think before I snapped the shutter. I had to manually focus each picture. I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could see the fruit of my labor. Long enough to almost forget what I’d shot. Opening that first envelope of pictures was quite emotional. I sat down and looked through them with my wife. Like any roll of film, there were some duds. An image with uninteresting subject material, a poorly focused shot, or improper exposure. Even so, there were few really good pictures that I framed.

A photograph is frozen moment in time. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the decisive moment, or the perfect moment to freeze in time. You can’t retake the same picture, because time will move forward. You’ll stop and refocus, changing the composition. Life is much more like a roll of film with a set amount of frames than a digital phone camera where we can take endless pictures in order to capture an image of how we think we should look. It’s a sobering thought, time.

Mostly From Memory is me sharing with you my life’s roll of film. Sure, I get to edit the pictures a little bit to make the subject material shine, but I can’t go back and take more pictures. Neither can you. Each season in our life is a frame of time on a limited roll. I wish that we could simply “delete” some pictures in life because of uninteresting or embarrassing subject material. Or a poorly focused shot. Or improper exposure.

I have a strong desire to make each season in my life count.

I can’t remember if I was thinking along these lines as I loaded the second roll of film into my now beloved Canon A-1, but I did know that I hoped to make every shot count. I think I took a few pictures of my kids, who wouldn’t be still to for anything in the world. The next day I took my camera to work so I could take pictures of downtown Winchester on my lunch break. There was one shot that I planned on taking. Every day I looked out from the fourth floor of the parking garage across the alley to the fire escape of the George Washington Hotel. The metal staircase against the backdrop of brick formed a perfect Z.

Z for Zane. I focused my camera on the target, but to get the composition just right required me to stand on the concrete barrier a foot from off of ground and lean against the railing with my knees. I took my time focusing and double checked my exposure before I firmly pressed the shutter release. Satisfied that I had not wasted a frame of film, I stepped back from my perch into reality. I was a hair higher than I expected and when my foot didn’t reach solid ground I grabbed for the rail, which was only barely above my knee. I panicked. In my desperation to regain my balance, my prized camera slipped from my hand. I watched it tumble through the air from four stories up. It fell for a long time, almost in slow motion, getting smaller and smaller until it smashed into the concrete and burst into pieces that fled the impact. I stared at the wreckage for quite a while before I realized that I could never take another picture with that camera. Then I walked down the stairs and picked up the pieces.

My busted Canon A-1. A testament to fragility of life.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Spring Water

On the winding road to Nonna and Pop’s house, just after you crossed the railroad tracks, there is an iron pipe that sticks out from beneath the parking lot of an ancient store and gushes crystal clear spring water. Dad would stop there occasionally when we were rambling and we’d drink with cupped hands out of that rusty cast iron pipe. The water was always freezing cold, and on a hot day there was nothing that could compare in taste.

HR Justice Store. The spring is on the opposite side.

I remember going to that store, the HR Justice Store, with my Dan-Dan, but for most of my life the store has set empty. A memorial of time past. I do remember that the store had hardwood floor, and a there was an old man behind a counter who talked with my grandfather. I was too young to pay attention to what kind of merchandise the store stocked, I only remember that they carried Grapico. I think it was once a genuine general store.

Until today, I’ve never really thought about where that water came from, I just new that it was good to drink. Long after the store had shut down, folks would still go there to fill up old milk jugs with the refreshing water flowing out of the pipe. It seems strange now to think of doing that, especially in a world where many people only ever drink water out of a plastic bottle. If you close your eyes and think hard, you can remember a time when buying bottled water at the grocery store seemed ridiculous. And maybe it still is, but we’ve just gotten used to it. It makes me wonder what else we’ve gotten used to.