Kindergarten

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten.

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten. “Look Zane, there’s a little boy with red hair.” She tried to comfort me as she pointed to Scottie, a boy with flaming red hair and a rat tail. Eventually I quieted down and took my seat directly across from Corey, a boy with a flat top haircut and perpetual drool on his chin. Miss Whitehead, our teacher, must have told him to wipe his chin at least six times a day for the rest of the school year, because I can still hear the frustration in her voice. Once all of the little children settled down and stopped sniffling a boy named Blake threw a bottle of glue across the room. As if on queue, the entire class stopped what they were doing and said, “Ooooohh”. This was the standard instinctual reaction for anything out of the ordinary for the next six or so years.

Miss Whitehead was a petite lady and was still in the early years of her teaching career. She had one of those bob haircuts that we popular in the early nineties, and she wore stirrup pants. It also seems like she wore a lot of horizontal striped shirts. I’m sure she was pretty trendy at the time. She must have gotten married and moved away because I only remember her being there for the first year of Elementary School. I did not move away, and neither did most of my classmates, Jordan, Ashleigh, Amanda, Stephanie, T.J., Maurice, Bexter, and several others. We would make memories together for the until we graduated thirteen years later.

I look back in regret at how much I hated nap time. I’m fairly certain that I never went to sleep anyway, although I did enjoy faking going to sleep so that the child assigned to wake everyone up would have to shake me. There was one kid that went sound asleep everyday and always woke up slightly dazed and grumpy. I might have been Corey, the drooler. I do recall Miss Whitehead calling me out for not being quiet during nap time. I had gotten some cowboy action figures, which Mom wouldn’t let me bring to school, but I had cut the trading cards out of the back of the cardboard packaging and I kept them in my pocket. Miss Whitehead caught me red handed playing with my cards instead of napping. I was upset with her for confiscating them, but I eventually forgave her.

We were mesmerized by the water fountain. Each of us waited out turn to get a drink of the cold water, all ignoring the exasperated pleas of Miss Whitehead to “Keep your mouth off of the water fountain!” Looking back, I think we all thought that she was talking to everyone else. I must admit that most of the water fountains I’ve experienced look ergonomically designed for your mouth. It wasn’t until she yanked my head off of the spout that I realized that I had been putting my mouth on the water fountain for as long as I had been drinking at water fountains. I try to avoid water fountains in general know that I’m an adult.

You learn a lot about change in kindergarten. About midway through my kindergarten year, we switched classrooms. We were all led en mass down to the new classroom so we wouldn’t get lost when the move finally happened. For whatever reason, Mom was late dropping me off to school on the day that we finally moved. I went straight to the old classroom only to find the door locked and the lights out. I wandered back to the front of the school to try to find the new classroom, but I couldn’t remember which door. I peered through the door windows of each classroom on the new hall, but didn’t see any familiar faces. I made the trip back to the old classroom before looking into another strange new room. Eventually someone from the office found me and took me to my new classroom.

Story time was my favorite part of kindergarten. We would all gather around Miss Whitehead’s chair and sit “Indian Style” on the floor. This was back when we sat Indian Style, today they call it criss-cross-apple-sauce, which confuses the kids. Anyway, we would sit there as Miss Whitehead would read to us from a book, holding it open so we could see the pictures, the most important part. It was during one of these sessions that Keisha, a mouth breather, stood up with he skirt dripping. It’s one thing to have an accident, but another to have an accident in public. “Why didn’t you tell me you had to go?” Miss Whitehead said with a tender voice although she was visibly frustrated. Keisha just stood there and shrugged, breathing heavily. The entire class remained completely silent and stared open mouthed at Keisha, each one of us grateful that we had not been the one to have an accident. There is nothing quite as intimidating as the kindergarten stare. We were old enough to know what was going on, and pure enough to hold anyone’s gaze unflinching. In many ways it was worse than the entire class saying in chorus, “Ooooohhh!”

 

 

 

Nursing Homes

I was probably too young to go, but my parents were committed, so I went to everything.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to take small children to sing at the nursing home, probably some adult who did not take into consideration how terrifying elderly wheelchair bound people can be to a five year old child. I was probably too young to go, but my parents were committed, so I went to everything. The nursing home we chose was a dismal place. The residents looked completely defeated, the staff had a martial air about them and the whole facility gave you the feeling of complete hopelessness, more like a prison than a care facility. Perhaps the one we visited was simply outdated, but I’ve visited others as an adult and I get a similar feeling.

I was too young to read so I was only obligated to sing from memory. My brother Zach, and Corey Barber did not get off of the hook so easily, since they were capable of not only reading, but counting too, which enabled them to use the Sing Unto The Lord hymnal. Sis. Vivian, Corey’s grandmother sat at the piano with her back to us and called out the page numbers to the each hymn as she played. In our church, we hardly called a song by it’s name, but rather used it’s page number. “Please turn to page 315.” Page 315 was Jesus Hold My Hand. Page 94 was Amazing Grace. As Zach and Corey turned the right page, Sister Vivian would play  an intro on the piano, and by then we were ready to sing. I’m sure our mothers enjoyed it. I think the residents might have just enjoyed seeing some small children, even if they had trouble hearing us. I did not enjoy it. I wasn’t miserable, I just wanted to play.

It was during one of these fidgety moments, probably about the third song, that I decided to pinch Zach on the rear end. He whipped around mid chorus of I’ll Fly Away and gave me a mean look and probably would have hit me but everyone was watching. In the midst of all this the music and the singing never stopped. Mom came and grabbed me by the hand led me to the side of the makeshift auditorium. It was really more of a wheelchair parking lot. Barring this incident, the show kept right on going. As Mom focused on singing I wondered around on the fringe of a crowd.

As we were about to leave, Mom went up towards the front to do something, possibly sing and I was left alone in my seat. One of the residents, an elderly lady in a hospital bed, pointed to me with a crooked finger and said in a weak voice, “Come here to me little boy.” Rear end pinching aside, I was an obedient little boy and I went straight over to her and said, “Yes Ma’am.”

She took my hand and put it on the back of her neck and said, “Scratch here.”

I would like to pause here and give some advice. If you are ever in a strange place and an elderly lady in a hospital bed asks you to scratch her neck, don’t do it. It’s a trap.

No amount of preliminary lecture on my behavior could have prepared me for a situation like this. There I was, not even in Elementary School, in a nursing home, doing the very thing that my parents had spanked me for not doing, minding my elders. As I was scratching the lady’s neck, a nurse rushed over and took my hand away. “Don’t touch the patients.” She said firmly. I didn’t get a chance to explain myself as she led me to Mom.

I’m glad to report that during my subsequent visits to nursing homes over the past twenty five years I behaved myself much better, although a lot of time I still get that same dismal feeling. I will also add that unless you’re playing like Merle Travis or Chet Atkins, don’t bring your electric guitar to the nursing home.

 

Vacation

I only ever remember taking one family vacation growing up.

I only ever remember taking one family vacation growing up. I was two years old when the whole family went to St. Louis, Missouri to visit some family friends, Sharon and Richard Davis. We drove Dad’s little red Mazda four cylinder pickup truck with a camper on the bed. Lindsay was under a year old so she was privileged enough to ride in the cab with air conditioning and the radio. Zach and I rode in the bed of the truck the whole trip. Mom was kind enough to give us a blanket to sit on and plastic three liter Mountain Dew bottle in case we had to go to the bathroom, which was great fun. We had no clue that this was not the proper way to go on vacation. Mom and Dad must have wanted to get away real bad. I remember falling into the penny pool at the bottom of The Arch, and being rescued by Andrea, the middle Davis girl.

For the rest of my life, we didn’t really go on vacation. I’m not even sure what a normal vacation is supposed to be like. If it’s what I think it’s supposed to be like, we couldn’t have afforded it anyway. What we did find a way to afford and what we looked forward to more than anything was spending time in Montgomery, Alabama at the Alabama District United Pentecostal Church Campgrounds on Pike Road. The original building was built in 1918 as one of the first schools with grades 1-12 all under one roof. At the time, High School was considered higher education, hence the “High”. The Alabama District had purchased the old brick school in the ‘70s and converted the classrooms into dorms and used the auditorium as the sanctuary. There was a big “Debt Free In ‘73” Plaque in the old lobby with the names of people who had donated to help pay off the mortgage early. My grandfather’s name was on there. By the ‘90s, a new sanctuary had been built beside the old school, I remember the new sanctuary always being freezing cold, I think they trying to make that air conditioner make up for all the years that it was absent. I didn’t complain, we didn’t have air conditioner at my house until I was eight and I think my parents had the same mindset.

There were four different week long camps held each year during the month of June: Crusader Camp, Jr. Youth Camp, Sr. Youth Camp, and Camp Meeting. Each of these camps roughly coincided with elementary school, middle school and high school, with camp meeting being for the whole family. Every June from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, I spent at least two weeks at the campgrounds for the various camps held there.  Camp was so great an influence on my life that it became one of the annual events that I still use to measure the years in my life, the other being Christmas. The focus of each camp was the same: Church. The daytime would be filled with games and activities, and the night time we would have church. There was also a day church session.

Crusader Camp was my introduction to camp. I remember The Hoppers were the feature children’s evangelists. I was and eight year old from a small congregation in a small town, and for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a minority. Our church taught gender distinction and to put this doctrine into practice, I only wore long pants (and still do) and my sister only wore skirts or dresses that covered the knee (and still does). Perhaps this dress code was a little redundant seventy five years ago when ladies had only just begun wearing pants, but glancing at the current gender identity crisis we have in America, I think we made the right choice. I’ve always stuck out- perhaps not as much as my sister- for dressing modestly, and Crusader Camp was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. This was the longest that I’d been away from home in a single stretch. I had so much fun that I could have stayed another week.

I remember one year the air conditioner died in the dorms and the heat was unbearable. At about midnight, all of the boys were led out to lie down on the cold cafeteria tile, and the girls went to the freezing sanctuary. As soon as the counselors got everyone to stop giggling and lay down, the air conditioner came back on and we had to gather everything up and go back to the dorms. I’m very thankful for air conditioning.

Jr. Camp is when I really wanted to start playing the guitar. The two main events were softball, and choir. Since social media was not on the scene and  good decade away  from saturation, we were just excited to be able to hang out with our friends and we didn’t really need an event packed day to have the time of our lives. Long distance telephone calls were still expensive, so we would just sit and talk at the snack bar if we didn’t play softball. I loved playing air hockey at Jr. Camp, but what I looked to most was hanging out with friends, especially girl friends. The premier event at Jr. Camp, and Sr. Camp for that matter, was the Pizza Banquet on Thursday night. Guys would ask a girl to be their date and we would eat Domino’s Pizza after service in the back of the sanctuary. While we were eating, we would have Midnight Madness which is a lot tamer than it sounds. There were skits, messy games, music, but mostly comedy. People were easier to entertain before YouTube and social media.

In a time before cell phone cameras, we would buy a few disposable Kodak film cameras, snap terribly framed group pictures, and order double prints so we could share them. There is something ceremonial about viewing your pictures when they come back from the one hour photo at Wal-Mart. You sit down on the couch and pass the pictures around and relive the moment, a week or so later. It seems that camp was one of the only times I thought it was important enough to take pictures and I have a stack of pictures from different events at the campgrounds over the years. I remember feeling a lot cooler than I look in these pictures.

By the time I was old enough to go to Sr. Camp, I had already made a host of friends and I looked forward to seeing them at camp every year. By my second or third year, I was playing guitar for the worship team. I don’t remember the first time that I got to play guitar at camp, but I know that Bro. Stan Davidson had a hand in it. Getting the opportunity to play guitar at Youth Camp when you’re fifteen was a pretty big break, and I’m still thankful for that opportunity. Playing at Youth Camp opened the door to play at Camp Meeting. I don’t want you to think that I was an amazing guitar player at fifteen, I was painfully average, but playing in front four or five hundred people forced me to excel. Men like Stan Davidson and Zane Isaacson believed in training young people. They made me feel like a real musician and encouraged me to keep at it. Encouragement is something that was lacking in my community. People who could only whistle would criticize you for trying to learn an instrument. Camp provided me with confidence and opportunity to be a musician.

Something that always plagued the campgrounds was an outdated septic system. Not only were the pipes laid in 1918, the system wasn’t big enough to accommodate a small army of teenagers. Every year someone had to work on the septic system in some capacity. By the time we were teenagers, Zach and I were also emergency staff members. One year the sewer line got clogged sewer line, and Zach had to help out, I was fortunate enough to be at band rehearsal, so I got out of helping that time. When they opened the release valve, sewage sprayed about fifteen yards. When he was done with that job, he just threw his clothes away.

Once a year, not during the camp season, we would make our way to Pike Road to help out at work week. I’ve helped tile bathrooms, paint doors, but what I did most was clean and haul away trash. One year Zach was helping run a piece of conduit under the sidewalk for an electric line. The pipe was hung up under the concrete sidewalk. “Hold on, I think I can feel it.” Zach said to the man on the other side of the concrete and reached his hand down to see if he could pull the pipe through. At the same time the man on the other side of the sidewalk shoved the pipe. The pipe cut Zach’s finger pretty bad and it started spurting blood. He grabbed it and ran into the kitchen with the whole host of workers following him. After we washed the finger off it was still bleeding really bad and someone said, “You better take him to the emergency room.”

My Dad, said, “We don’t have any insurance.”

This reply was met with a smirk by the man who had shoved the pipe. When Bro. Mike Hartzell saw this expression, something came over him and he took Zach’s hand and said with authority, “Let’s pray.”

After everyone prayed, Zach pulled the wet paper towel away from his hand and we couldn’t even find the cut.

I heard some life changing sermons at that old campground. I used to buy all of the tapes at the end of the week with the money I had earned hauling hay. I still have a big stack of those tapes at home, although they are a little warbly from years of listening. There is one tape that has a reserved spot on my desk at home, “The Things God Measures” by Rev. Doug White. I can quote much of it. “The book of Ezekiel, chapter 40…God wants to know how big your altar is…” I remember that night like it was yesterday. I felt God calling me to preach in the altar call after Bro. White had measured out about a hundred yards of rope as an illustration of the line of flax. There were other memorable speakers from the various camps that I distinctly remember, J.T. Pugh, C.M. Becton, Paul Mooney, Mike Chance, and Wayne McClain. I remember being so tired from staying up all night that I fell asleep on the front row of the day session at Camp Meeting one year. I’m ashamed to say that this happened while Bro. Becton was preaching.

I also made lifelong friendships at camp. Back in the days before everyone had a cell phone and the internet was a luxury, we used to get a booklet with every camper’s name and address. It was a thrill to get a letter in the mail, especially if it was from a girl. I had my first crush at camp and we corresponded through the mail until the long distance phone rates went down. I hope that she could read my handwriting. It took a lot of courage to call knowing that her father could answer and I would have to ask to speak to her.

There was a distinct culture at camp and unless you experienced it, it might seem odd and a bit hard to understand. Sort of like someone trying to explain a real vacation to me. I wish the Pike Road Campgrounds story could go on and on, but sadly it must come to an end. In recent years, the Alabama District made the hard decision to sell the campgrounds for a myriad of reasons. This put a seal on my childhood. Sometimes, we adults would like to go back to being kids, but it’s not possible, we can only remember. I hold the memories that I made every June at camp very dear. Temporal things will not last, and even memories fade, at least for now I still have those tapes and pictures.

 

Biblical Rock Band Names

I’ve composed a list of band names taken from the Bible.

I’ve composed a list of band names taken from the Bible.

  1. Wounded in the Stones
  2. Balaam’s Ass
  3. Kicking Against the Pricks
  4. Strange Fire
  5. The Fleshpots
  6. Pestilent Fellows of the Baser Sort
  7. The Whited Walls
  8. Jannes & Jambres
  9. The She Bears
  10. Dead Men’s Bones
  11. The Bloody Husbands
  12. Sons of Korah
  13. The Privy Members
  14. Wilderness of Sin
  15. The Lame Men
  16. Chaff
  17. Backsliding Heifer
  18. Gate of Sodom
  19. The 10 Plagues
  20. Hole in the Roof
  21. Golden Calf
  22. Pillar of Salt
  23. Forehead Bald
  24. The Italian Band
  25. Tombs of Gadara
  26. Noise of the Viols
  27. Hands Against Every Man
  28. Sepulchre Throat
  29. Plain of Ono
  30. Fire of Molech
  31. Sons of Belial
  32. The Peeping Wizards
  33. Ostrich Mother
  34. Dart in the Liver
  35. Golden Emerods
  36. Nehushtan
  37. High Places
  38. Riotous Eaters of Flesh
  39. Leave Us Alone!
  40. The Slow Bellies

Your New Pickup Truck

Congratulations on the purchase of your new pickup truck!

Congratulations on the purchase of your new pickup truck! You’ll realize how many friends you didn’t know you had once they start asking you to borrow it. Now that you have a man’s vehicle, you’ll be asked to do manly jobs like hauling mulch for your great aunt, or hauling manure for your Dad’s garden, or helping your coworker pick up a couch that they found on Craigslist. You’ll pick up lawn mowers, haul away trash from your friends bathroom renovation, and help family members move into a new home. Before you know it you’ll have people that have come to depend on you. Or maybe they’re just depending on your truck.

I have always loved pick up trucks, the most masculine of vehicles. I wouldn’t want to try to haul fifteen sheets of plywood in a fancy convertible sports car, no matter how fast it could go. Growing up, I remember all the men having pickup trucks, cars were for rich men. And women. That’s only partially true, rich men could afford new trucks.

Some of my fondest childhood memories come from riding in pickup trucks. When Saturday rolled around, my Dad, my brother and I would pile into Dad’s red Mazda pickup and go “rambling”. Like fishing, rambling always involved stopping at the BP, or Smith’s Grocery to get a bag of chips or a candy bar, and a coke. Zach would get a Dr. Pepper, Dad would get a Pepsi, and I would get a Grapico, or a Mt. Dew. Once we had the proper snack, we’d turn on the radio and listen to British Invasion bands, Motown, or the Braves baseball game as we drove no where in particular. We might find ourselves at the Logan Martin Dam watching the water churn while it’s force generated electricity. Or we might find ourselves visiting a distant relative, or people with odd nicknames like Big Apple and Caveman. We weren’t really concerned with where were going, as long as we were going together. I was always impressed with Dad’s driving skills. Shifting gears seemed like an impossible task to a four year old, but Dad did it without thinking. He would even hold the steering wheel steady with just his thumbs as we zipped through the winding roads of highway 25, which impressed me as much as if he could have played the steel guitar with his teeth.

My brother bought his first truck from my Great Uncle Johnny Wells. It was a golden brown 1982 Chevrolet S-10. I think it had about 380,000 miles on it, but I might be mistaken. It drove like it did anyway. Zach had the hardest time getting it to start. I always had to give him a push so he could pop the clutch. I think I must have pushed it about thirty miles during the time he had it. We probably pushed it more than we drove it. It leaked oil pretty bad too. After about a case of 70 weight oil, Zach ended up returning it to Uncle Johnny, because he could never get the blasted thing started. Uncle Johnny fired it right up and drove off like it was nothing. They were old friends, Uncle Johnny and that truck. He had learned to drive on trucks without power steering and that you had to double clutch, so driving that old S-10 was a breeze.

My cousin Kent’s first truck was an old Ford F100. It was primer blue and rust, but you didn’t have to pop the clutch. J.L. Parker offered to buy that truck once. “I’ll give you $100 for it if you’ll put a new tire on it and fill it up with gas.” I don’t know why Kent didn’t sell it on the spot.

Somehow or another, Bro. Darryl Freeman sold our church youth department a large storage unit full of merchandise from a wrecked tractor trailer. There were free weights, toys, household items, electronics, cell phone accessories, and basically just about anything useless that you could imagine. The idea was to have a massive yard sale to raise money for Sheaves For Christ, the annual fund raiser for Youth Department of the United Pentecostal Church. Kent and I were tasked with hauling all of that junk from Birmingham to Vincent, a good forty five minute drive. We did that for about a week or so that summer. Sometimes we took Jacob Wray with us, the more the merrier. On the way back one day from picking up a load, I was holding a bottle out of the window and letting it whistle. We were laughing like that was the funniest thing in the world. Things were funnier before smart phones. While we were laughing Kent bent down get something out of the floor and the truck veered off the road. I barely had enough time to get my arm in the window before Kent obliterated a mailbox with my humerus. I had glass in my arm from the rear view mirror and huge bruise from the mailbox. Fortunately I didn’t break any bones. The worst part about the whole deal was I had to get a tetanus shot.

I still drive a pick up truck today, and a manual at that. I love to listen to the engine rev, letting me know when to shift gears as I accelerate. I don’t mind people depending on my truck either, that’s part of the reason I got one in the first place. It feels good to be able to help people. And whenever Saturday rolls around, I pile Wes into my truck and we go rambling.

The Store

One of the largest enterprises in my hometown, especially after the cotton gin shut down when I was in the third grade, was Smith & Sons Associated Groceries. Smith’s for short and “Smiss” if you talked like a local. Smith’s was where you went to shop for groceries if you didn’t want to drive twelve miles to Chelsea, or ten miles to Childersburg, in order to shop at those fancy grocery stores like Food World, Winn-Dixie, and Piggly-Wiggly. Smith’s was a small grocery store that had endured an expansion sometime before I was born. You could still see where the wall was knocked out to add four more aisles. Let me take you on a quick tour of the store.

The parking lot was small, only ten spaces directly in front of the door. If you weren’t lucky enough to get one of these, you had to park in the overflow parking by the ancient warehouse, where there were another ten or twelve spaces. There was only one entrance to Smith’s, a single set of electric doors. I remember them being brand new when I was a kid. These doors let the freezing outside air rush in during the winter. Immediately through the door on the right was the Blue Bell ice cream freezer. The other brands of ice cream started to show up the further you got from the door, but that’s not important. To the left there was the magazine stand. When you were standing in the entrance, you could see all the way back to the milk case on the last aisle. If you walked to the milk, you would pass all nine aisles on your left. This is what you would find in the store, if it was still open and I was still working there and you needed to know where to find something.

Aisle 1: Frozen dinners, pizzas, cool whip, cheap ice cream, and the repackaged frozen biscuits. All the taco seasonings were on a display at the end of this aisle right before you entered the meat room. On the other side of the aisle was where you would find all the cookies and junk food, and my personal favorite Keebler Danish Wedding Cookies.

Aisle 2: This aisle was capped on the meat case side opposite on the entrance side, that’s were all the Pop-Tarts were. Medicine, band aids, and stuff like that were found in the actual aisle. Aisle two was shortened because this was also were the cash registers were.

Aisle 3: Cereal was on the short side of this aisle. Coffee, the coffee grinder, and tea were on one end of the aisle. As you came toward the cash register it morphed into the fishing food; potted meat, Vienna Sausages, pork and beans, sardines, and tuna.

Aisle 4: Flour, sugar, rice, dry beans, packaged dinners.

Aisle 5: Barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, Jello, pickles.

Aisles 5 and 6 were separated by a big wall.

Aisle 6: Toilet Paper, garbage bags, Ziploc bags, Baby food.

Aisle 7: Soap, cleaners, mouse traps.

Aisle 8: Dog and cat food, salt licks, feed.

Aisle 9: Bread & chips. On the back wall was where the milk, individual soft drinks, and beer. You had to open the door and walk in the cooler to get your eggs off of a rolling cart. There was a cardboard sign saying as much for first time visitors.

On the perimeter of the store there was a makeshift office built so as to see the entire original store, you had to go up a few stairs to get into the office. All along the right wall as you entered were the soft drinks. Once you passed the egg door along the back wall you came to an open cooler where you would find sour cream, cheese, canned whip cream, sausage, bacon, lunch meat, and the occasional fruit cake. Once you got to the next wall, you would find a stand up cooler where the pork brains, chitterlings, and beef and pork liver were found. That case also had chicken gizzards and livers. Next you came to the fruit and mushrooms. You would pass the pudding display as you walked back into the original part of the store. There was an entrance into the stockroom here, from the entrance to the front wall was the meat case. Not only did Smith’s have pretty good meat, they had a wide selection of meat. There were steaks, pig ears, chicken feet, beef tongue, pig tails, ground beef, hog maws, pig feet, chicken wings, souse meat, and even turkey necks. Not to mention the Boston butts, chicken wings, and pork ribs.

Smith’s was the first job I had that I had to pay taxes. I had been working nearly since I started elementary school and I didn’t like this paycheck robbery. It’s hard to report your earnings when you’re breaking all the child labor laws. I was preceded in my office as stock boy at Smith’s by my elder brother Zach Wells and friend Creed McDaniel. I used to walk to the store and bug them while they were working. When Zach graduated I had to wait a year or so before I was old enough to get hired.

Working in the air conditioning and even the cooler, was a big departure from hauling hay. My duties were fairly light too. The main thing I had to do was keep the milk and meat stocked, and sweep the store every night. I had other duties like hauling the empty milk crates to the big stack out by the warehouse, retrieving the buggies, cleaning the parking lot with a blower, filling propane, mopping, waxing the floor, buffing the floor, and stocking shelves.

I really enjoyed stocking the milk. For starters it was in the walk in cooler, which was a wonderful place to be in an Alabama August. While you were stocking the milk, you could see all the way to the front door and know who was coming. You could mess with people you knew when they open the door to get a gallon of milk. One time Creed and Zach were stocking the milk together and singing I Don’t Want To Close My Eyes, by Aerosmith. Some lady opened the cooler door and said, “Well keep ‘em open sugar!”  It was fun being back there, it was like a hideout. I also enjoyed jumping in the box dumpster to pack it down. The box dumpster was acquired after the EPA found out that Smith’s was burning boxes in the ditch behind the store. I never got the joy of burning boxes, but being able to jump in the box dumpster is consolation enough. I even enjoyed breaking down boxes, but the thing I enjoyed the most about working at this tiny grocery store in the middle of nowhere was talking to the regulars.

This strange variety of meat that I mentioned reflected the wide variety of clientele that Smith’s enjoyed. Nearly everyone in town came to Smith’s. There was Uncle Bill, who came in just about every day, not so much to shop, but to set down on a couple a milk crates and talk to cashiers, Mr. Newt, Mrs. Shirley Smith, and Mrs. Marie, who was Newt’s wife. Uncle Bill, was not my uncle, that’s just what everyone called him. People get nicknames that stick in small towns. Some of the regulars had names like Rubber Duck, Screwdriver, Peanut, Bargain Town, Uncle Wallace, and Studebaker. Uncle Bill called me Superman. I would like to think I got this nickname because of my bulging biceps, but more than likely it was my dark hair and thick glasses. Once as I was sacking Uncle Bill’s groceries, he admonished me to “Be careful with my cacklefruits there Superman.” He was talking about his eggs. I could spend a lifetime telling you about the regulars that came into the store. Uncle Wallace would always ask, “How you doing?”

“Pretty good”, I’d reply.

“Pooty good hard to beat.” He would say.

When you go to the grocery store, you share common ground with all of the rest of humanity in that we all have to eat. When someone came into the store, you didn’t really think about people’s political preferences, their ethnic background, or their lifestyle. I enjoyed getting to know so many people from different back grounds in our little town. For the most part, people were friendly, even if they were peculiar. One lady didn’t want us to bruise her coffee while we sacked her groceries.

If you were a customer at Smith’s, you were like family. When we asked about your family, we meant it, we weren’t just making small talk. I say we, because I worked there long enough to get to know the regulars, and had lived in the town all my life and knew everyone anyway. It did not occur to me how open and friendly we were with the customers, until I moved away and had to start doing my own grocery shopping. You don’t see this kind of relationship with the customers as much in larger grocery stores, no matter how organic the cheese and vegetables are. The grocery store was able to bridge the generation gap between me and the rest of the staff, who were old enough to be my grandparents, and these people became very dear to me. My mom used to bring us all supper, most of the time beans and cornbread, or Mexican Cornbread, which is cornbread with onions, cheese, peppers, corn and sausage mixed in. If I learned anything from working at Smith’s, it’s that food brings people together, especially at work.

Mr. Smith, who founded the store, died before I was old enough to get to work with him, but I remember him well. He wore a fedora style hat and had really thick glasses. He worked in the store until he passed away. He would just sack the groceries with his wife, Mrs. Shirley Smith. Mr. Smith had lost an eye and had a sticker with a picture of an eye that stuck to his glasses. I don’t know how old he was, but my great uncle James remembered him being old when he was a young boy. When Uncle James was a little boy, Mr. Smith asked him and his brother, “You boys been slumbering on the bed?” They looked at each other and then shook their heads to Mr. Smith. Once they were in the car, one of them asked, “How did he know that we wet the bed?” By the time I came along Mr. Smith was just working because he loved people, because he was long passed retirement age. I guess when you do what you love for a living, it’s not much like work. Mrs. Shirley Smith had a distinctive laugh and she was always laughing, calling everyone “Hun.” She smoked those big long super 120 cigarettes. She was quite a joker too. Once she told Kim, Marie and Newt’s daughter, to go warm the toilet seat up for her. Kim waited a long time until she realized that Mrs. Smith was kidding.

The person that I worked most closely with was Ray. Ray had been a mechanic and truck driver in the Marines during Vietnam.  After he got out of the service he was a truck driver until he had a near fatal accident that left him with a broken back. After numerous surgeries, rods, pins and screws, Ray was able to walk again, albeit very much hunched over forward and to the left. He looked a bit like Merle Haggard to me. Ray was not my supervisor as much as he would have liked to think he was, but he did schedule the major evening tasks like mopping, bleaching the concrete floor in the stock room, buffing the floor and weed eating the back lot. I witnessed Ray bust the passenger window of his truck with a rock slung out by the weed eater. I was glad that he was showing me how to run a weed eater, as if I had never done that, when this happened. Ray kind of mumbled when he spoke and said some words a little different.  He couldn’t say rinse, instead he’d say, “I’ll mop and you wrench.” He struggle with pronouncing propane too, “Let’s go fill ‘ease profane tanks up.”

One of other tasks was to stuff frozen biscuits into Ziploc bags. We’d each set on a milk crate, open a huge box of biscuits and repackage the biscuits. You could put two stacks on four biscuits in the bag, two biscuits sides between the stakes and one more at the top. It was all you could do to get that last one in and zip the bag. These biscuits were a hot seller in the store and another one of the things that I was specifically tasked with keeping stocked. Ray and I would talk as we sat there in our gloved hands, for those of you who were worried, and stuffed biscuits, but Ray usually had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, sorry about that folks if your flour ever smelled like a cigarette smoke. It was during this sessions that I learned about Ray’s military service, the truck accident, Ray’s favorite things, how good Ray could cook, and various feats of might and prowess that he had accomplished and endured during his life. I mostly listened. Ray once told me about a television preacher back in the day that had got caught. “With a woman?”  I asked. “Naw. They caught with them pornogitty books.” Ray would sometime chide me about going out and partying, mainly because he knew that I didn’t. “Why don’t you get you a case of them Corollas and got out on the town?”

We could spot a first time visitor a mile off, even before they started looking for the eggs. They just had a lost look about them. Once we had a guy move to Vincent from California, I’m not sure how he found us. He was in my English class. As I was sweeping the floor one night before closing he came up to me and asked, “Where are the bagels.”

I stopped sweeping and leaned on the broom handle raising my hand getting ready to point him in the right direction. I thought for a minute, and drew a blank.

“What’s a bagel?” I asked in sincerity.

He stared back at me and fumbled to explain what a bagel was. “It’s a round bread thing that you eat for breakfast. They weren’t on the bread aisle.”

I took him to the bread aisle, still puzzling over what a bagel might look like. There were no bagels on the bread aisle.

“It’s probably over there by the frozen biscuits.” I said triumphantly, wondering why I didn’t think of that first. I lead him to the opposite side of the store. But it was no use, there were no bagels in sight. Mrs. Shirley didn’t know what a bagel was either. After I found out what a bagel was and tasted it, I realized why we didn’t have them in stock. I wonder why I didn’t just try to sell him some biscuits.

One day I remember walking into Smith’s to begin my shift only to find out that the power was out. I remember staring at the rat’s nest of wiring in the panel box and wondering why the building hadn’t burned down twenty years ago. I walked back home, there wasn’t much that I could do.

I must confess that when it comes to the state religion of Alabama, I am apostate. I understand the doctrine and can even explain it to others, but I’ve never been much of a believer, but for most of the population of Alabama, and especially the inhabitants of our little town, the rites of football were kept reverently and faithfully. Community support for the local high school football was so strong that on the Friday night home games, you could have shut down the store two hours early and no one would have noticed. Even worse was the Iron Bowl, the annual face-off between Auburn and Alabama. On Iron Bowl night, the store might as well have been closed, because everyone was at home watching the football game. I remember the cashiers blaring the radio broadcast as Eli Gold called the game. The state of Alabama shuts down during the Iron Bowl, it’s the perfect time to travel since the roads are clear. When I moved out of state I was confused at first to learn that people are actually interested in pro football. I guess that’s what happens when you have pitiful college teams.

The last time I went home, Smith’s had been sold and the name was changed. I walked in and all the people looked unfamiliar. I’m sure the change was gradual to the people who lived through it, but it was drastic when you weren’t really expecting it. Since then the store has closed it’s doors and a Dollar General has opened up not far down the street.  Although many of the staff and regulars have passed away, they live on in my memory every time I go shopping at my local fancy, but characterless grocery store.

Play Houses and Tree Houses

When I was three or four, my Dad built a small playhouse in our back yard.

When I was three or four years old, my Dad built a small playhouse in our back yard. It was about eight by eight feet, complete with a door, window facing south and a tin roof. This playhouse was also a tool shed for all the shovels, axes, mattocks, sledgehammers, and various other garden tools. There was a shed on the back where we kept the lawnmowers out of the rain. I can remember the day that Dad leveled the concrete blocks and framed up this one room house. I was probably in the way, but it was pretty fantastic watching the building come together. Once the building was up, Mom painted the floor white and then let Lindsay, who was just a toddler it seemed, dip her hands and feet in different colors of paint and walk around on the floor. Really, this play house was intended for Lindsay, the lawnmower shed was for Zach and me. All the same, we all enjoyed playing in the playhouse for those first few weeks. After that, a colony of wasps invaded and Mom and Dad spent the rest of my childhood keeping Raid in business and the wasps at bay.

Later on, my parents added some cabinets to the playhouse and used it for storage. They put everything in there, yard sale furniture that my mom planned on refinishing, salvaged building supplies for the coming remodel, the old kerosene heater, and various other items that were not of immediate use inside of the house. At one point there were large sacks of dried pinto beans. One day, Lindsay and I were playing in the play house when I noticed that Lindsay was being really quiet. I looked around to see her sitting in a pile of the spilled pinto beans with a funny look on her face. Her face was contorted as she wiggled her nose like you do when you have a cold and you’re trying to breathe. “Did you stick a bean up your nose Lindsay?” I asked. She nodded yes. I ran to the house to let Mom know what she had done, not that I was overly concerned about my Sister, but I wanted to make sure Mom knew that I had nothing to do with it. Mom tried unsuccessfully to get Lindsay to blow her nose, and Lindsay screamed like a wildcat as Mom drove the bean farther up into her sinuses as she tried to retrieve it. After this, we all piled into the van and drove to my grandmother’s house to perform the minor surgery that was required. Gram, my grandmother, held Lindsay down as mom poked a sewing needle into the bean and pulled it gently out while Lindsay screamed the entire time. I don’t think she’s ever done anything like that since.

While Mom and Gram were extracting the lodged bean, Zach and I were busy playing outside. Gram had a proper playhouse that was built on posts about seven or eight feet off the ground so you could park the lawnmowers underneath. You enter the playhouse through a trapdoor in the floor reached by an angled ladder made of two by fours. It was always a gamble to open the trap door at the top of the ladder, because you never knew what creatures might be waiting for up there. I remember a lizard crawling out onto someone as they open the door and nearly every time that we played in the playhouse, someone got stung by a bee or wasp, but that was hardly enough deterrent to keep us from playing in that stuffy old building made of rotting OSB chipboard. Once the adults saw that there were holes in the floor big enough for several kids to fall through three at a time, they stopped allowing us to go up into the playhouse at Gram’s place.

Playhouses are pleasant, but what most kids want more than anything is a tree house. Our friends down the road, Jared and Creed, each had their own tree house so they wouldn’t have to share. Their tree houses were really just tree platforms, but we didn’t care,  we spent countless hours hiding from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Foresters, picking off Viet Cong, and ambushing Apache Indians from those tree houses.

All of the trees in our back yard were pecan trees, which are prone to splitting and aren’t a good option for a tree house. We did have some humongous oak trees directly in front of the house, but Mom wouldn’t stand for a tree house in the front yard. The closest thing we had to a tree house at my house was about fifteen nylon straps that we used as seats in the Mimosa tree situated in the middle of the Kudzu patch next to our house. Mom had gotten a roll of thick material to weave the bottom in some kitchen chairs and we cut lengths of it to tie between the many forked branches in that Mimosa, creating a comfortable slingshot looking seat. Mom counted eight boys in that tree one day. My brother had a dog named Sadler who would get up there with us, he could climb about halfway before we had to help him up the rest of the way. It was an easy tree to climb, I even climbed it backwards once while trying to get away from a green snake. We killed the pitiful little snake with the same hatchet that my cousin Kent had almost chopped the limb he was sitting on out from underneath himself. “You know when you finish chopping that limb you’re going to fall about ten feet?”  Someone said, and we all laughed. Kent stopped and looked puzzled for a second. “I don’t guess I even thought about that.” I believe him. I don’t remember doing as much playing in the Mimosa as we did just sitting and talking, planning what we were going to do next. It was our trysting place, and we spent a good portion of time there until the one day one of the straps broke. It wasn’t long after that Zach and Creed got jobs down at the local grocery store Smith’s and we stopped climbing the tree.

We never did fix up the tree house, it went the way of Gram’s playhouse, and our childhood went with it. Even the playhouse Dad had built got another life as a garden shed as Dad got more and more into gardening once I was in High School. The tree houses and play houses bring to my memory a flood of childish decisions that were made there: climbing a tree too high and getting stuck and being unable to climb down, or falling out or a tree only to be saved by your foot being wedged in a forked branch, or losing your favorite pocket knife as you carelessly romped through the woods and Kudzu to the Mimosa. Another thing that comes to mind is how incredibly fast time went by, one moment you’re playing in the play house and the next moment you’re home from Virginia for a weekend and your Dad is showing you the garden beside the garden shed. In some respects childhood is a blur and you need to visit with an old friend to bring events back to your memory. The play houses and tree houses are the old friends that I’ve chosen to visit this week and they represent a time in my life that has faded away as I’ve became a man and put away childish things. It’s easy to gloss over the dumb and dangerous things that you did as a kid and only focus on the fun that you had, on the other hand, it’s hard to forget someone else’s mistake or close call and all too easy to remind them of it. Even when recalled, these embarrassing moments will quickly slip back into their proper rarely visited place in our memories as we focus our thoughts on the transient minutia of the fast paced lifestyle of a responsible adults. The things that are seemingly all important today and quickly forgotten tomorrow cause us to feel like our clocks are working double quick. I just hope time can go a little slower through my kids’ childhood than it did through mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practical Jokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Skipping School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Dave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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