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.

Mr. McGraw

Do you remember an influential teacher? What were they like? How did they influence you?

In my Senior year of High School I stayed in my Chemistry class long enough to realize that it was going to require more math skills than I cared to exercise, so I asked the guidance counselor to place me in a different science class. I ended up in Zoology, which was decidedly less academically strenuous. Furthermore, it was on the middle school side of the school. Vincent Middle/High School is in one building with two wings separated by a courtyard, which may not have made the class easier but it seemed like it did. We also had a new teacher, a recent college graduate. This was his first teaching job, and we were his only Senior class, the rest were seventh grade science class. I guess the administration just wanted to feed him to the lions. He had a rough go with those seventh graders, and we watched him grow more frazzled by the week. He only lasted about three weeks before he walked face first into the edge of partially opened door, which broke his glasses and cut his face so severely that he had to go immediately to the hospital and I never saw him again. The principal, Mr. Minnick, came in and finished the rest of the class teaching us about vernal equinox and summer solstice, and the seasons. Which I guess could be tied somehow remotely to zoology. Even so, he did a really good job and it was eye opening for a few of my classmates who had missed or forgotten our science teacher, Mr. Byrne, a former NASA employee, give a far superior explanation when we were in the seventh grade.

We went through a slew of substitute teachers. There was one particular guy that was very rude and liked to embarrass students in front of the class. I hope he got a job somewhere that didn’t have good air conditioning. Mr. Minnick, our principle, sat in a few more times because there must of been a shortage of substitute teachers.

Then one day we had substitute teacher that I recognized as a frequent shopper at Smith and Son’s Grocery where I had been gainfully employed the summer before, and as one of my Dad’s turnip green customers. He drove a mint green Cadillac and had gold rimmed glasses. This was Mr. McGraw, one of the first graduates of the newly integrated Vincent High School in early 70’s. He had come over from the segregated black school to join the football team with Harold Garrett, who had the misfortune of teaching my 8th grade sex education class. Anyway, apparently they had been a dynamic duo of quarterback and receiver, or at least been good enough for me to read about it in the newspaper thirty years later, and for the school to name the football stadium for Mr. Garrett.

That first day Mr. McGraw introduced himself as our permanent substitute for the rest of the year, informing us that our original rookie teacher had quit. We learned that Mr. McGraw was originally from Vincent, but didn’t make any boasts about football as I recall, and that he had recently retired from teaching in Ohio and moved back home to be with his mother.

Mr. McGraw was not in the least intimidated by the unruly seventh graders, having spent the past thirty years teaching High School in Toledo, Ohio. I believe that he also understood that for the most part, our senior Zoology class did not consist of overachievers and that we did not have very high expectations of him. Or rather, he didn’t have high expectations of us. 

I realized this after we spent a week studying ungulates and he wheeled in the TV from the library and we watched, “Mysteries of the Deep” a documentary about ocean life. We watched that film about five times that year. No one complained, we were all just ready to graduate.

The only lesson germane to Zoology that still stands out vividly from that class is when we learned about marsupials. “When I was kid, we caught a possum and dipped it in kerosene. Then set it on fire.” He offered this information in a matter of fact tone as a side note while he was teaching. It kind of took the class off guard. He followed it up by saying, “It took off through the field running.” He chuckled as his memory took him back to being a kid. It was not a chuckle of sadistic delight. It was a older man reflecting back on his childhood and chuckling at poor decisions. I don’t blame him though, there wasn’t much more to do in the rural Alabama in which I had grown up. 

We probably learned more about life and being an adult from Mr. McGraw than we did about Zoology. He was no nonsense, without being rude. He lacked that thin sheen of professionalism that greases many transactions in the corporate world. He was the same person in the classroom that he in the grocery store. That was probably more valuable than anything we could have learned in a cop out course. 

It’s often amazing how strange events can bring you into proximity to people that make an impression on you. After all these years I can still remember minute details about Mr. McGraw. The gold ring, and gold chain around his neck. The torn rotator cuff that was giving him trouble. The inflexion of his voice. How he pronounced certain words. But I’ve forgotten our original teacher’s name.

 

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Bicycles

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

You probably remember when you first learned to ride your bike. Maybe your Dad had been running behind you, holding on to the banana seat, and you looked back to see that he was standing twenty feet back with his hands on his hips grinning at you. You panic and then crash. This is repeated until you don’t crash, and that’s how a lot of people learn to ride their bike. Others never started out with training wheels, and were told to just go ride it. My Uncle Tony taught me to ride without training wheels at Gram’s house. It was a faded blue bike with gummy white rubber grips on the handle bars that left a tacky feeling on your hands. He was running behind me as I peddled, until he wasn’t, and I kept right on going. I’ve only met a couple adults who never learned to ride a bicycle. It’s difficult to imagine childhood without bicycles.

It seems like I wore out and outgrew bikes like I outgrew shoes. It probably didn’t help that we left our bikes laying in the yard to get rained on. My Dad would just shake his head when he saw this. When you got a brand new bicycle for Christmas it was easy to haul it up onto the porch and use the kickstand, but the new wore off pretty quickly after one good winter mud puddle. It never occurred to me to clean my bikes. The only maintenance I ever thought about was air in the tires and oil on the chain. Dad would catch the spent motor oil in an old kitchen pot with only one handle whenever we changed the oil in the family vehicles. After crawling out from underneath the truck or van, he would tell us to fetch our bikes. He flipped the bikes over and we would work the pedals as he poured the gritty black oil over the moving chain. You could feel the whole drive train working more smoothly as the lubrication was applied. This usually made a glorious oily mess as much of the oil splattered all over the rest of the bike. We didn’t mind though.

I had a bicycle with cement tires. It was already old when I got it as it refused to be worn out. Not many people I’ve talked to have heard of cement tires. There is a reason cement tires never caught on. Imagine riding on a pothole riddled road in a car without shocks at full speed. That almost gives you the same feeling as riding that bike.

Not content with standard issue, every boy in our neighborhood felt the need to modify his bicycle. The junkyard of worn out bikes at each house usually supplied us with adequate parts. Sometimes, probably most times, the modification did not make the bike any easier to ride or better. It was the feeling of seeing an idea come to life that gave us satisfaction. Adam Bryant put a go cart steering wheel on his BMX style bike. It was the hardest thing in the world to steer. Zach and I put bicycle tires on a scooter. It went a lot faster, but the bigger tires raised the platform to an uncomfortable height for anyone who actually wanted to reach down with a foot to scoot. Jared and Creed put roller blade wheels on a pair of two-by-four studs and pulled them behind their bikes. I’m not sure why, and when I talked to Creed the other day, he still wasn’t sure why. But they did it, and when they rolled up into our yard each with a makeshift trailer rattling behind them, their face shown with pride because of their ingenuity, and they wanted to share their success with us.

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

We rode bikes everyday until one of us got a car, and our bikes sat out in the rain and rusted until one day a man that Dad knew came and picked them up for scrap metal. We didn’t realize it at the time but as I watched him drive away a chapter closed in my life.

To combat the sedentary nature of my desk job, I recently purchased a proper adult bicycle. I’ve ridden 225 miles since I started three months ago. The changing temperatures that you feel as you ride through the shade and the hollows of Alabama takes me back to being a child on a bicycle. Having a wreck on a bike as an adult however, is a completely different experience.

I’ve tried sporadically over the last year to teach Wesley how to ride his bicycle without training wheels. At times I’ve felt like a failure as a Dad because I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to devote to this task. Other times I felt like he almost had it, but he stopped short. A few days ago while I was at work, he got on his old smaller bike, and told his mom, “I’m going to practice riding my bike without training wheels.” Without any help on that particular day, he figured out how to ride his bicycle.

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Go Carts

A set of powered wheels is something that most boys dream about. He thinks of ways to power his bicycle, perhaps with a weed-eater motor. He numbers the days until he can get his learner’s permit and start driving. “You don’t need a license to drive.” My dad used to say. “You need a car.” Although I got plenty of driving time in the hayfield, it was still work. There was no freedom. My Dad eventually got Zach and me a riding lawnmower, but we were unappreciative. What we wanted was a go cart.

Jared and Creed had a blue one. Creed, unsatisfied with the lack of speed recommended by the manufacturer, was smart enough to remove the governor which made the go cart dangerous enough to be really interesting. Due to a combination of rough terrain and hard driving, their go cart was frequently out of commission, and more frequently out of fuel. When it was operational we would race wide open around the perimeter of Mr. McDaniel’s property, getting slapped by the briars and brush that had obstinately sprouted since the last time the land was cleared. We would ride it until someone wrecked it, or we ran out of fuel. There was only room for two, one steering and one holding on for dear life. The other two stood and waited impatiently for their turn, hoping that the fuel would hold out and the cart would come back in one piece.

Uncle Tony offered Zach and I the deal of a century, $50 for a faded red go-cart with a fighter pilot steering wheel and a dirt dobber nest in the engine. We went in 50/50 at $25 a piece. We loaded her up in the back of Dad’s truck and stopped by the BP to fill up the tires and the fuel tank on our new rattle trap go cart. We couldn’t wait to get home and give her a spin. Somehow I got to drive the go cart first. We pulled the starting cord and the old engine coughed out grey smoke. I climbed into the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel, this was living. I gunned the cart down the hill and toward the cemetery. I reached the agreed upon turnaround point and whipped the little racer around without giving much thought to traffic, which was virtually nonexistent on the cemetery road. As I began up the hill the engine begin to whine, then choke and sputter, I was losing power. My brother was waving his hands frantically and running toward me. I couldn’t hear him over the unmuffled roar of the malfunctioning engine, I pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor. By the time that Zach reached me the engine died and I slowly started to slide backward down the hill. We pushed the disabled go cart up the hill to give Zach a turn. The go cart started up, but wouldn’t budge. I had burned out the clutch before Zach ever got a chance to ride it.

We ended selling it to a man in our church for about what we paid for it. I don’t know if he felt sorry for us, or just wanted to fix it up. I really didn’t think about go carts again until I was grown, and only then because one of the kids in my youth group got a brand new one. It had a roll cage on it. I thought that was neat, but I bet Creed would have figured out how to remove it to reduce drag. The excitement of driving a vehicle without a license was missing once driving became a chore. I guess some things are meant to stay in your childhood, and go carts was one of them.

I got a phone call from my Dad around that same time. He had just seen a two grown men pull up to the red light in the middle of town in a little blue go cart. It was Jared & Creed.

Things That Matter

Isn’t it funny that baby animals learn so much faster than we do? A baby deer will be up and on it’s feet within a couple of ours of being born, but it could take a child more than a year to learn to walk. It is a curious thing. It’s not that humans are unintelligent. More than likely you are reading this on a handheld device with more computing power than the technology NASA used to put men on the moon. How can we be so intelligent, yet so vulnerable? Such were the musings of my dear friend. Admittedly, I’ve never heard a rhetorical question that I didn’t think needed answering, but there is an answer to this existential pondering.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Genesis 1:27

There were a lot things created in the first chapter of Genesis. No, all things were created in the first chapter of Genesis, but only mankind was made in the image of God. Before there was government, before there was a church, there was a family. God has a high view of the family. Nathaniel Wilson said that, “God, the almighty, could have called himself anything, but he chose to call himself Father.” With the knowledge that as a Father I am responsible for teaching my children everything, there also comes a sobering weight of responsibility.

At my baby dedication, my pastor and grandfather, Brant Douglas Reynolds, summed up the complex role of parenthood, admonishing my parents to, “Teach him to brush his teeth, but teach him have clean speech. Teach him to comb his hair, but teach him to keep his mind pure.” As a parent, I’m responsible for feeding my children natural food, but also food for their minds. I’m to help them learn to walk, but also to show them how to conduct themselves in society.

In the information age, we have to be selective about what we are going to teach our children. Not only because there is false information, but because vast amount of information available, it isn’t possible to learn everything that can be learned. As parents we are the curators of the ideas and skills that we want to instill in them.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

I would do my children a grave disservice if I trained them up to do something in their childhood and then expect them to do something completely different when they become adults. What a tragedy it would be to learn that what seemed all important in your childhood was now completely irrelevant in adulthood. As sad as that is, it’s far worse to learn that what you did in your life had no weight in eternity. I want to concern myself with matters of eternal significance. I want to teach my children about the eternal kingdom of God.

In my journal, I often write my clearly defined beliefs on things. I do this in order to practice articulating ideas. But I also have a fanciful idea that my children will pass the journal down and it may come into the hands of a relative that I have not met. My prayer is that they will read these journal entries and the ideas and beliefs will not be foreign to them.

I have compiled a short list of things that matter that I feel a grave responsibility to teach my children, and am not willing to leave to chance. I want teach my children to have good manners. I want them to know how to treat people with respect. I want to show my children how to be a good father, and a good husband. I want my children to be good citizens. These are all honorable aspirations, but there are a few things that are even more important than these.

The Word of God is Infallible

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: II Timothy 3:16

As much as I would love to just give truth to people, especially my children, they must make that investment themselves.

Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding. Proverbs 23:23

There is Only One God

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine hear, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thing hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9

It’s easy to put this at the top of the list, because God makes it a priority throughout the Bible.

Jesus Christ is God Manifested in Flesh

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. Colossians 2:8-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, ) full of grace and truth. John 1:14

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us word of reconciliation. II Corinthians 5:19

You Must Be Born Again

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. John 3:3

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John 3:5

Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about baptism. I was once at a funeral where the officiating minister quoted this scripture with the addendum that ,”being born of the water was natural child birth.” I instinctively cried out, “No!” If I don’t teach my children that baptism is important, someone else is going to tell them that it isn’t necessary.

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. Mark 16:16

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4

Baptism fulfills the covenant of circumcision.

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also yea are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:11-12

Above all, I want my children to be saved. At the birthday of the church, the Apostle Peter answered the direct question about salvation: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Acts 2:38-39

All of these things matter to me. I’ve got to be responsible for what happens in my home.

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15

On Government

It was with high ideals that I first learned about our government. Having read about it in our hoard of books at home, and with my father’s voice guiding me through each page, I held the founding fathers and the men who fought for us in the American Revolution in high regard. These weren’t mere men, a foreign concept to many in today’s society, but they were great men. Men with conviction. Men who lost fortunes for freedom.

Learning about government in school was quite a different experience. I was always puzzled by the role of the legislative branch. Why did we need new laws? Did people not understand right from wrong? It became apparent to me as a child that not everyone in my class, and maybe even a couple of teachers, had not grown up with a set of Encyclopedias and bookcase in every room of their home. In classes like civics, and government, I heard some the most bizarre ideas articulated and espoused that I am still more than a little concerned to know that those people are now voting.

I was chosen by our faculty to attend Alabama Boy’s State during the summer before my senior year of High School. Boys State was founded in the 1930’s to combat the Hitler Youth programs. Each year, schools all over the country send a select group of boys to a week long camp where they will create a miniature model of their state government. This mock government is complete with Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Judges, and all of the various commissioners and elected offices that make up the bureaucracy of their given State. At the end of the camp, two representatives, usually the elected governor and lieutenant governor, are chosen to attend Boys Nation, were a model of the Federal Government is created, and delegates get to meet the President of the United States. The boy that was elected governor of Alabama the year prior to my attendance was elected President of Boys Nation. Judge Pete Johnson, the Director of Alabama Boy’s State, had been a Boy’s Nation delegate and had met President Kennedy. While Everything I had learned about the government so far had been theory, Boy’s State was practice in every sense of the word.

I arrived at the University of Montevallo and upon registering was assigned a “City”, or Dorm. Each City was named for former Boy’s State Director. For that week, I lived in the City of Fann, which was the second floor girl’s dorm. We were also assigned one of two parties, Nationalist or Federalist.
I was a Nationalist.

In our first party meeting. We were tasked with establishing a party platform, and choosing candidates. As most of the large crowds I have been a part of had been at church, it was unnerving to be in such a starkly divided crowd trying, or not trying in many cases, to find common ground. The issues that we could not agree on, much like today, were Abortion, Gay Rights, and the Lottery. We argued for so long, that fearing we would run out of time, some adults intervened. They advised us to ignore these hot topic issues. We followed this terrible recommendation and developed one of the weakest party platforms in history, only rivaled in shallowness by that of the opposing Federalist party.


Looking back on the process we used to elect candidates that we did not know is quite comical, until I realize that it is also how it is done in real life. Anyone who felt so inclined was given two minutes and a microphone to convince the party why he should represent all of us. There were some vulgar remarks, quite a bit of silliness, and a hand stand by a snooty soccer player. In the end, we were able to narrow it down to the popular kids in each city, at which point there was another round of convincing with slightly extended microphone time and an admonishment to not pound the podium, the adult supervision not having ever heard a Pentecostal Preacher. At last we, brimming with patriotism, elected a boy from England to run for “Lufftenant” governor. Ultimately, he won the election and when it was discovered that he was a noncitizen, Judge Pete Johnson, being a member of some kind of naturalization or immigration board, pulled some strings and the boy was naturalized in front of the whole delegation at general assembly. It was quite moving and he cried a little bit. I’m not even sure why he was there if he wasn’t a citizen, but I’m also not sure why I was chosen, and I was born here.

Throughout the week we heard a few special speakers. They were mostly politicians who rambled about growing up poor, or growing up rich. One evening before one of these speeches, three boys played their electric guitars in front of the whole delegation. They played Sweet Home Alabama, probably the purest performance of anyone we had heard all week. The speaker was the honorable mayor of Fairfield and future 30th Mayor of Birmingham, Larry Langford. It was immediately apparent that he was the sharpest dressed man in the building. He walked to the podium and called the three guitar slingers back up on stage. “It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of a crowd of this size and give an outstanding performance. Y’all impressed me so much that I’m going to give each of you, out of my personal money,” here he paused to reach into his front pants pocket and pull out a handful of cash, “each of you a hundred dollars.” From the giant roll of money, he peeled off three crisp one hundred dollar bills. He did it with great ceremony and it made quite an impression on the boys in attendance. I recalled this incident when I began to read about Mr. Langford in the Birmingham News for running up a near six figure tab at Gus Mayer. The incident was again recalled when he was indicted and ultimately convicted for bribery.

Although there were many interesting things that happened at Boy’s State, probably the most important thing for me was realizing how the State government actually worked. As a result of a weeks immersion in the workings of the political system, I became disillusioned with government in general. After working in County and State Government for nearly my entire adult career, my views on government have repeatedly been confirmed. It is not the honorable, nor the noble that are elected, but the popular. It is not the faithful men of character that allow their name to run for public office, but the self promoters. Righteous laws are not passed, but popular laws.

Given the world’s current political situation, it would appear that with such a dim view of government I must be a miserable pessimist, or a political extremist. I am neither. Think me not unpatriotic. I am proud to be an American. Proud not in the haughty, raised up sense, but in the unashamed sense, proud. I cast my vote with a feeling of grave responsibility. I believe that our form of government is the best that man can do. After all, it is founded on biblical principles.

“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” – Isaiah 33:22

The problem is not what form of government to which you subscribe, they all work in theory, but once you add people, the key ingredient, the whole thing runs amuck in time.


“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.” Isaiah 40:7

In conclusion, I find it hard to get worked up about something that God gives so little thought.

“All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” Isaiah 40:17

Year-Round School

I went to Vincent Elementary School and Vincent Middle/High School. For a long time I thought that I had a pretty normal public education. For the most part, I enjoyed school because I enjoyed learning. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that my small town Alabama education, particularly the schedule, was a radical departure from the traditional academia. The Vincent school system, somewhat isolated from the rest of Shelby County, was chosen to operate on an experimental “Year-Round” schedule. I think that parents voted to try the schedule. In short, we attended school nine weeks at a time. After each nine weeks, we got a three week break, and a slightly longer seven week summer break. The year round schedule went into effect when I entered kindergarten in 1992 and concluded after I graduated in 2005.

I’m sure that qualified individuals conducted studies on the effectiveness of this schedule- I recall there being evidence of higher test scores- and you can probably can read about it in some moldy academic journal if you know where to find it. Just keep in mind that it was probably written by someone who never actually experienced year-round school as a student, which unfortunately, is a severe blow to their credibility. As someone who attended year round school until college, I realize that I am biased, but I am strongly for year-round school. Perhaps I like it because it’s all I’ve ever known, but what is not to like? I recall pretty clearly that schedule was popular with the faculty.

So why did Vincent stop doing year round school? I’ve always theorized that it was due to an out of sync athletic schedule. This was the only complaint that I remember hearing about year-round school. This is only partly true, the real reason that Vincent was taken off of year-round school was because Vincent was different.

Here is an excerpt from a Gadsden Times article titled Vincent fights to keep year-round school schedule from January 30, 2005.

Amy Martin, a teacher and parent at Vincent schools, said the year-round schedule works and doesn’t need to be changed.

“If you insist on everybody being on the same calendar, fine,” she told the Shelby County school board. “Put them on our calendar.”

All other Shelby County schools are on a traditional schedule and Vincent should join them, says School Superintendent Evan Major. But the county school board on Thursday night opposed Major’s recommendation. The board tabled the issue until two separate calendars can be drafted for consideration.

Major wanted one calendar for all schools because two separate calendars is inconvenient, he said. Major said he’s not disappointed in the board’s decision.

“We have a system and that system works,” he said.

Eventually, School Superintendent Evan Major got his wish, and today Vincent is on the same schedule as the rest of Shelby County. This makes me wonder how much progress has been halted in the name of convenience?

 

Back to College

I recently decided, in a moment of weakness, to go back to college. I just wanted you to know that after all these years, I still hate Algebra. I’m sure Algebra helps with abstract thought in some way, but I’m not all that sure that I need much help with abstract thought. I’d like to view myself as an abstract thinker, someone who finds unique solutions to every day problems. Take the time that I cleaned my glasses with the water hose and dried them off on the concrete; if that’s not abstract thinking, I don’t know what is. As an adult, I can also say that most of my bosses have not appreciated this type of creative problem solving.

The thing about Algebra is, I don’t care. I care about the population of Eritrea and who invented Worcestershire sauce, but not how to solve quadratic equations. It has always been a bad habit of mine to only take care to learn the things that interest me. It’s not that I’m incapable of learning, I just have a selective academic palate.

I’m certain that this statement will paint me as an uncultured swine, but college degrees have never impressed me much. Some of the dumbest people I know have attended college. My Dad used to tell a story of a old man who had worked in the machine shop at Union Foundries for nearly thirty years. A fresh young college graduate had recently taken a job in upper management and was prone to “screwing up royally” as Dad used to say. Whenever these things happened, sometimes halting production, the old man would just shake his head, laugh and say, “He been to college though.”

Nevertheless, college degrees impress employers. Having a college education doesn’t make you any smarter, just more educated. And more qualified. And more qualified to do what? “Ay, there’s the rub.” Anyway, enough dreaming, I’ve got to go extract some square roots.

 

Portrait of a Southern Gentleman, or Things I Learned From My Dad

I was brushing my teeth this week, and while I generally do it every day, I can’t remember which day, so, I was brushing my teeth this week. I look in the mirror while I’m brushing my teeth. I was taken off guard to see that my forearms have grown considerably since I’ve been working in a more strenuous environment. For a moment, I thought that I was looking at my Dad’s arms.

I think my earliest memories of my father is of him splitting wood in the back yard. His forearms swelling as they gripped the maul. I was watching from my upturned five gallon bucket chair. Now I see him open the chicken pen and feed the chickens. Now I am standing on the back porch watching Dad wade through the flooded back yard in the pelting rain with a chicken under each arm. I watch a chicken snake as long as a fishing pole swim between his legs. I remember him killing the snake with a hoe. I remember him loading a rusty wood stove with the wood that he split. I remember riding around in his red Mazda. Mostly, I remember him coming home from work just about every day. Because my Dad is a faithful man.

Proverbs 20:6 Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?

My Dad did not teach me how to be faithful, he showed me. He has been faithful to his wife. He showed me the importance of loving your wife.

“In 1936c King Edward VIII of England abdicated the throne to marry a woman from the United States. He would rather marry that woman than be the king of England. I don’t know what it’s like to be the King of England, but I do know what it’s like to love a woman.” -Perry Wells at the dedication of Wesley Wells.

My Dad has been faithful to his family. He loves his kids. He has shown me how to love my children. How to speak kind and lovingly. Dad never talks to babies like babies, he talks to them like they’re grown people. I think that may be why children love him so much.

Dad went to work every day because he was faithful to his family and to his job. He only took vacation time to take us to camp meeting, and Alabama Revival Conference, and Men’s Retreat, and Youth Explosion and Back to School Rally. Dad’s family was his top priority and the best thing he could do for us was to take us to church.

My Dad has been faithful to his God. We missed about two Sunday services in my life to go the family reunion at Uncle Freddy’s place on the river. There was never any question of whether we were going to church. Even when times were strange. Not to say it couldn’t have happened, but I never once remember thinking that my Dad might backslide. Dad didn’t just attend church, he lived it at home.

Dad would have been an excellent candidate for college, but he did not have the opportunity. He started working in a foundry right out of High School. And so he worked all of my life, getting promotions as I grew older. I remember Dad buying a set of World Book Encyclopedias from a door to door salesman. I read through them about twice. A year. For the next thirteen years. Dad gave me a hunger for learning and an appetite for literature. Dad values learning in a way that I hardly saw in the public education system. He is a voracious reader, and because of this, there is hardly a topic that he isn’t at the very least conversationally knowledgeable.

Which brings us to conversations. I’ve never met someone that Dad couldn’t have a conversation with. My Father can talk to anyone about anything. Whenever Dad found out that Pastor Dillon was considering me for a Youth Pastor position in Winchester, Virginia, Dad called him up and talked to him like they had known each other for years and as if Pastor Dillon had been expecting the call. Dad has always been my biggest salesman. Perhaps you’re reading this blog because he forced you to read about a town drunk. Thanks for reading. And thank you Dad for being my biggest fan.

My Dad is a music lover. He would drive us boys around in the truck and we’d listen to Motown and British Invasion on the oldies station. He loved to sing along with the radio. I love to hear him sing at church too. My favorite selection from his repertoire is House Of Gold. I can’t imagine any voice but his singing…

Some people cheat, they steal and lie
For gold and what it can buy
But don’t they know that on the judgement day
Gold and Silver will melt away?

What good is gold and silver too
If your heart’s Not pure and true?
Oh sinner heed me when I say
That gold and silver will melt away

I’d rather be in a deep dark grave
And know that my poor soul was saved
Than to live in this world in a house of gold
And deny my God, and doom my soul

After he realized that I didn’t like hunting or fishing, and after I played the broom for two years, Dad bought me my first guitar. It was a sacrifice at the time, but Dad sent me to Mars Music and I picked out the Squier Strat Pack, “Rock N’ Roll in a box, everything you need is right here.” The salesman said. Dad also paid for my lessons with Marky Vincent. I still play that guitar everyday. I keep it out so it’s easily accessible, I think about my Dad every time I play it. Sometimes I play his favorite requests and imagine him listening in, bobbing his head and singing along, even though he is so far away. House of the Rising Sun, My Girl, Every Breath You Take.

Dad showed me how to tell a story. That’s why you, dear reader, have made it this far reading an essay that you will not be graded on. Dad knows how to captivate your attention and get you genuinely interested in a story. He sometimes leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next while he shakes his head and rocks back and forth laughing so hard that he cries and loses his breath. Dad knows how to flavor a story with colloquialisms, short sayings that are stories in themselves, sometimes bizarre but still relatable. Growing up I thought everyone’s dad was as good of a communicator as my dad. The older I got the more I realized that Dad is a naturally gifted bard. Here are a selection of my favorite of his colloquialisms.

“Dangerous as doo-dooing in a well.”
“Heavy as a widow’s heart.”
“Goofy as an eight day clock.”
“Wild as a team of goats.”
“Ugly as pootin’ in church.”
“Mean as a snake.”

It was September 11th, 2017. I was vacuuming the church in the altar area, listening to Dragnet on my headphones when I got a call from Mom. She was crying. “I got some bad news. Dad has cancer.”

Cancer. I’d heard of it. A terrible disease that happens to other people and their family members. Cancer takes on a new meaning when it happens to you or someone you love.

Dad’s response was, “If God heals me, I’m going to live for God. If He doesn’t heal me, I’m going to live for God.”

It’s been a rough few months. A hard time. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve prayed a lot. There are a lot of things I don’t understand. I don’t know why my Dad got cancer. I don’t know why the first doctor missed it nearly a year ago. I don’t know why we found out so late. I don’t know why the medicine doesn’t seem to be working. I don’t know why God hasn’t healed him. I don’t know why…but this I do know:

Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

For the duration of my adult life, I’ve called my dad just about every day. He was there to give council. He was there to comfort when we had a miscarriage. He was there when the money was tight. I’ve been able to share a lot with my dad over the years. Every time I hit a major milestone in my life he would rejoice with me, then he’d quote this scripture:

III John 1:4 “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”

It’s not an easy thing to think about passing from this life into eternity. Recent events in my life have caused me to reassess my priorities. When I weigh what it is important in the light of eternity it is sobering to think that what most men are breaking their back and neglecting family to obtain does not even make the list of important things. But I don’t want to be like most men, I want to be a faithful man.

Thank you Dad.
Thank you for showing me how to walk in truth.
Thank you for being a man’s man.
Thank you for whipping me when I smarted off to you.
Thank you for being faithful to Mom. Thank you for loving her and honoring your vows. Thank you for sticking together through hard times, through hellish times.
Thank you for being faithful to God. I know that you loved the book of Job, but I didn’t think that you were going to have to relate to it on this level. Thank you for not charging God foolishly.
Thank you for taking out a second mortgage to send me to Bible college. Thank you for raising me to follow the will of God even though it broke your heart when I moved eleven hours away to pursue God’s will.
Thank you for living what you believed.
Thank you for making me get a haircut.
Thank you for buying me my first guitar.
Thank you for buying me my second guitar.
Thank you for giving me my first vehicle, the purple Tacoma.
Thank you for teaching me how to drive a manual transmission.
Thank you for giving me my second vehicle just in time for college. The old Plymouth Grand Voyager.
Thank you for paying for all the times that I went over my minutes talking to my future wife.
Thank you for showing me how to be a man.
Thank you for teaching me how to work.
Thank you for listening to me flesh out all the sermons I preached over the years.
Thank you for loving me.
Thank you for being a faithful man.