The Google Reviews I Haven’t Left

Here are a few bad reviews that I didn’t leave, but wanted to.

I only leave five star Google reviews. If a restaurant or business isn’t worth a five star review they certainly aren’t worth my time to give them a lower rating. While some people might “Cause a scene” as my Dad would say, I try to avoid confrontation. If service or the experience is bad, I just won’t go back. Which is part of the reason why I only really like to go eat at about three places, Hamburger Heaven, Taquiera Las Cebollitas, and you guessed it, Chick Fil A.

Hamburger Heaven, my favorite restaurant.

But sometimes I get worked up enough to want to say something. Here are a few bad reviews that I didn’t leave, but wanted to.

Three Star Grocery Store

At best this place is a compromise. People don’t shop here because this is a great grocery store, but rather to avoid going to town. Unless you are getting a rotisserie chicken-which are pretty good- or it is an absolute emergency I would avoid trying to shop here. They also picked the worst possible music to play too loud, which always puts me in a foul mood. How am I supposed to find the pectin while some grown man is whining and mumbling-I’ll not call it singing-about his feelings?

Two Star Home Improvement

The only thing this place has going for it is that there is no other competition in town. Which is a shame, because our town would benefit from having options. In theory having competition would make the current store sure up their customer service. More than likely though all these workers would just jump ship to the new store because they look pretty miserable now.

Two Star Home Cooking Restaurant

The pandemic has not been kind to this restaurant. The problem with chain restaurants is many decisions that should be made locally are made in some corporate office a thousand miles away, or in this case 167 miles away. The last time I ate here I’m glad we had a gift card, because I would have been mad if I would have had to pay for rock hard mashed potatoes.

Four Star Italian Restaurant

I really wanted to leave a five star review because my food was excellent. But there is more to a restaurant than good food, and unfortunately the service fell short. The teenage waiter was friendly enough, but frankly he forgot about us and we waited a long time for our check. Which made me wonder why we waited a long time to be seated.

Perhaps I’m turning into a cranky old man who fusses about paying first class money for second class service. Kind of like my dad. As a kid I remember thinking he was making a big deal about something trivial, but now I begin to understand his frustration.

We perpetuate the decline of quality when we continue to accept lesser quality at the same price. If I have a bad service experience at a restaurant but still go back, I’m likely to have another bad service experience the next time and the restaurant will think that I’m ok with it. Or I could just start leaving bad reviews.

Tater-Tot Poisoning

Sarah fried tater-tots the night before a doctor’s appointment the other day. They were so good that she decided to fry some more right before the appointment. I did not know this, or rather, I do not like to retain this in my knowledge, but fried potatoes and more specifically salt (which every self-respecting person knows must go on fried potatoes) can elevate your blood pressure. Which kind of unnerves doctor’s.

“I’m not telling you this to scare you, and don’t rush down there, but because your blood pressure is elevated (along with some other factors) you probably need to go to the hospital to be monitored. It could be nothing, but you could be having a baby tonight.” This is what the doctor told her.

So we pawned the kids off on my sister and headed to Birmingham. We stopped at Hamburger Heaven in Gardendale in case it was the big one. The hospital has a tendency to starve you half to death when you are in labor. We went ahead and got burgers and fries because we wanted to make sure her blood pressure would still be elevated so the hospital trip wouldn’t be in vain.

After about an hour or so hanging out in the hospital room, they told us we could go home. Which was a relief, because I had forgotten my eye drops and my contact lenses have a 100% chance of drying out if I plan on staying up all night reminding Sarah to breathe. It was a good practice run anyway.

Last week Sarah went to two appointments and even without tater-tot poisoning, her blood pressure was still high. Anyone trying to raise two children probably needs to check their blood pressure. So the doctor wants Sarah to be induced.

So I’ve written all of this to let you know that we are having a baby this week. Our other children weren’t this predictable. We let them decide when they wanted to come-Sunday night after we’d been at church all day and Christmas morning respectively. Unless it happens before, we should have a baby this Thursday, October 1st, 2020. I can’t wait to meet this little tater-tot.

The First Vehicle I Drove

This truck was huge. Imagine an old dump-truck with a flatbed.

“You remember the old blue truck?” Uncle Jason asked me the other day on the phone.

Do I remember the old blue truck? Do you forget your first kiss? Do you forget your first dog? Do you forget the first time you accidentally used buttermilk in your cereal?

The old blue truck was an old Chevrolet that had been converted to run on propane. I’m not sure if that conversion would be economically sound with today’s fuel prices but in the early nineties it made a lot of sense. This truck was huge. Imagine an old dump-truck with a flatbed. It was built before commercial driver’s licenses were a requirement, but I doubt you could drive a modern equivalent without a CDL. That’s how I remember it anyway. I’m sure some automobile enthusiast could tell you a lot more than you’d care to know about it. For years I thought it was an International.

I was either in the second or third grade when Pop was waiting for me when I got off the school bus. I had enough time to drop my school books off and “get into my work clothes” before being whisked off to the hayfield.

It was Uncle Jason who showed me how to drive Old Blue. Basically I was given a crash course on shifting between neutral and low. The only pedal I was authorized to touch was the clutch. No gas pedal or brake needed. I couldn’t even fiddle with the manual choke. Just clutch, steering wheel. I didn’t worry about anything else.

And go easy on that clutch, we don’t want this hay falling, but push it in as far as it will go.

Just hold the steering wheel steady and don’t run over any hay bales.

Press that clutch in when you hear us holler, but don’t stomp it.

The instructions always came with an addendum.

Dad showed up at the hayfield around the time he normally got home from work. It was before cellphones were common. So I am imagine there was a message waiting for him to come meet us in the hayfield.

After surveying the operation Dad asked, “Who’s driving?”

“I’ll never forget the look on your Dad’s face when he saw you in the driver’s seat.” Uncle Jason tells me over the phone. I hear him pause to make a facial expression that somehow I can still see clearly, although it is on my Dad’s face and not Uncle Jason’s. It’s a look of shock mixed with pride.

I was so proud as little boy to have driven that big old truck, and to have gotten paid for it. There is a feeling that you can only get by having done work. It is one of the best feelings in the world and it gives you a sense of pride and satisfaction. I did something worth doing today.

Zane Wells, age 7, professional hay truck driver.

“How could I forget Old Blue?” I replied to Uncle Jason.

“Well I passed it the other day on 278, not far from your house.”

“You sure that was it?”

“No doubt in my mind.”

I believed him. But I went and checked just to make sure.

Old Blue
I remember the bed of this truck being taller than me.

The Southern Simile

Do you have a favorite Southern saying?

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

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

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

-Mean as a snake.

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

-Broke as a convict.

-High as a cat’s tail.

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

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

-Cold as a well rope.

-Hot as blue blazes.

-Crooked as a dog’s leg.

-Naked as a jay bird.

Strong as half an acre of garlic.

Tough as woodpecker lips.

-Goofy as an eight day clock.

Crazy as an outhouse rat.

-Poor as Job’s turkey.

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

-Screaming like a coon hunter.

Slow as molasses.

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

Hang in there like a hair in a biscuit. 

-Dark as a sack of black cats. 

Pretty as a pair of new shoes.

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

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

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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.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Water

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

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

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

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

Swimming

I’d be in a bind before I had to go swimming in that snake pit, especially naked.

For the most part I usually go swimming in my clothes. At the family reunion on the river, I would run straight from the car and dive off the pier fully clothed. It might seem a little odd, but quite tame compared to my Dad’s philosophy.  He  would shake his head and say, “That’s crazy, swimming in their clothes like that Sonja.”

“They need to be modest Perry.” Mom would reply, she was big on being modest. “What do you want them to swim in then?”

“We always went swimming in the water.” Dad would say with a grin. It wasn’t a helpful suggestion, but it was the truth.

Dad grew up with a younger brother and slew of cousins. They were notorious for skinny dipping in Hurricane Creek, a creek behind my grandmother’s house. He took me back there once to show me. It was a glorified swamp. I’d be in a bind before I had to go swimming in that snake pit, especially naked. When you use the word “naked” in Genesis your mind wants to pronounce it “Nay-ked”. It makes the word seem like not a bad thing.  And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed Genesis 2:25. Anytime you read the word after man was kicked out of the garden, you have to pronounce it, “Neckid”, which lets you know that there is shame involved. And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. Genesis 3:10.  

There was still a moderate amount of shame involved in my Dad’s generation of nude bathers. I remember hearing a story of when the gang were all swimming in their “natural” way, when a family on a picnic discovered them in the creek. One of the cousins climbed out of the creek and began to put his clothes on not many yards from the people.

“What in the world are you doing?” They all cried to him.

“I ain’t going to let these people to see me naked.” He replied.

After a few instances like this, they had to search for a new swimming hole. 

Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. Proverbs 9:17

Even the Bible implies that there is a thrill in doing something that you’re not supposed to do. Dad would recount, “Whenever we saw a sign that said keep out, or do not climb, we interpreted that as, ‘Climb Please’.” It was in this manner that they happened upon the water tower. They climbed it and to their surprise, the latch at the top was unlocked.

“It was dark in there.” Dad used to say. “That first jump in always took a little courage because not only was it dark, you never knew what the water level was going to be.”

It worked great as a swimming hole until Dad, being a concerned citizen mentioned to Uncle Johnny, who worked on the water board, that the water level seemed unusually low in the water tower.

“How in the world do you know that?” Uncle Johnny asked, a bit surprised.

“We went swimming in there last week and the water level was fine. Yesterday the water was real low.”

“What are you boys doing swimming in the water tower? Y’all can’t do that!”

“It’s fine Uncle Johnny, they purify that water before it goes out.”

“Naw! That water goes straight to your momma’s sink. Y’all better net get in there again.”

The next time they tried to go swimming there was a lock on the lid. I guess nothing gold can stay. They had to go back to swimming in creeks, lakes, and rivers. This is where I’ve done most of my swimming too. I was always to chicken to finish climbing the water tower to see if the lid was open. Still, whenever I pass a water tower during the summer I always wonder if there is a gang of cousins in there skinny dipping. 

 

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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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My Mind Goes Back

When I squint into the early morning Spring sun

my mind goes back to getting up before daylight

to work all day with my grandfather.

Not knowing what the day would bring.

I just showed up to work, with eyes fighting sleep and the sun to stay open.

When I smell freshly cut grass in the late afternoon shade

my mind goes back to playing softball in the back yard

with the whole family and half the neighborhood kids.

A celebration after sweating behind a push mower for half a day.

When I taste a handmade hamburger at some hole in the wall diner

where no one cares about the health score hanging on the wall,

 my mind goes back to being a kid and going somewhere with my dad.

Just me and dad.

I smile and think of him as I take a bite, he would have liked this.

When I hear hammer of diesel engine and smell it’s aromatic exhaust

my mind goes back to working odd jobs on construction sites with my older brother.

Dust is flying in the air and the sun is going down or coming up.

We worked all day.

When I hear the cawing of a crow breaking the still, clean air on a cold fall morning

my mind takes me back to the quiet frosty cotton fields behind the house.

When I drive on a rough neglected back road,

my mind goes back to the river loop.

Now I’m on the way to the boat launch with Zach and Dad.

Or on the way home from the tiny Chinese buffet across the river with the whole family.

When I smell years of stale cigarette smoke in a time capsule house from the 50s my mind goes back to my grandmother Ida Lang’s.

When a familiar musty smell escapes as I open an old book in some quiet bookstore, my mind goes back to laying in the floor reading through the ancient encyclopedias.

When I hear just about any song my mind goes back to first time that I heard it.

Some songs have a stronger memory attached to them.

And yet, sometimes my mind goes back on it’s own.

A feeling that’s hard to explain.

Sometimes I think I go back to a place that I never was, and when I get there, I am sad because I was not there the first time.

There are places that my mind takes me back that I don’t want to go.

Then there are places that my mind can’t take me.

Ah, but other times,

my mind goes forward.