Caroling and Such

Merry Christmas

We used to go Christmas Caroling when I was a kid. A group of us from the church would pile into a trailer filled with hay, wrap up in blankets and drive all over the town surprising elderly people with a few Christmas Songs. It was a lot of fun.

Pop and Marion used to have a couple of Percheron horses, Hawk and Holly. Aside from the occasional parade, I think their sole purpose was to pull Santa Claus in a wagon around Vandiver and Sterrett. Santa Claus would hand out candy to children. If you still believe in Santa Claus I’d like to warn you to skip the next sentence. The last year they did this I’m pretty sure my brother had to be Santa Claus, and he was pretty sulky about it too.

I still like to sing Christmas Carols, without or without a hayride, or hot chocolate to burn your tongue. Every song is better when someone sings it with you. I’m fortunate to have a little songbird for a daughter. This year we sang together at the Christmas Concert at our church, Cornerstone Revival Center. I know my parents would’ve been proud. They’d have loved to be there holding Hollynn while they listening to Miriam lay that vibrato on thick.

I wish I could pull up to your house in a horse drawn wagon and sing you some Christmas Carols, but this is the best I could manage this year. Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas from my family to yours.

Pecans

Pecan pie may be what every pecan aspires to be.

I have two pecan trees in my yard. Hurricane Zeta knocked all of the pecans out at one time. They’re good pecans too. We picked up half a five gallon bucket just off the porch. I’ve tried to inspire the children to pick up pecans, but I don’t think they’ve caught the vision yet.

I grew up in the remnants of a pecan orchard. At one time there were probably thirty or forty trees behind our house and the next three neighbor’s houses. By the time I was a kid there were only about seven left. Over the years some of those pecan trees were blown down in different storms. We’d play on a fallen tree for days until someone came over with a chainsaw and hauled it away. Dad used a lot of that wood to grill and barbecue.

Very ofter Dad required us to pick up a five gallon bucket of pecans before we could go gallivanting around town with Jared and Creed. I can’t lie and say that picking up pecans is fun, or has ever been fun. But we did it. We would sell them to the local grocery store Smith’s, where I’m sure some grandmother would buy them, shell them, and make with them a delicious pecan pie. Nowadays we would have marketed them as handpicked, and it would’ve been true since we threw the pecans with wormholes into the kudzu patch.

Pecan pie may be what every pecan aspires to be. I used to think that it was the only pleasant way to eat a pecan. Fresh pecans cracked in your hands- take two pecans in on hand and squeeze with all your might until one of them cracks-have always had a slightly bitter taste to me. I still do it out of nostalgia though, and to impress my kids, but pecans are ingredients, not stand alone snacks.

Pecans need some love, or sugar as we say in the South, to really come alive. Candied pecans, praline pecans, cinnamon and sugar pecans-they all taste great even though I’d be hard pressed to tell you how to make them.

For all they’re bitterness, I still love pecans. It makes me think about being a kid. I also think pecans are pretty with their dark streaked shells and their orange to yellow meat inside. I like the smell of pecans, and the oily feel of the fresh meat.

I think I finally understand why Dad wanted us to pick the pecans up. The harvest was just laying on the ground, all we had to do was pick it up. As an adult, waste bothers me. So I’ve been picking up pecans when I get a chance. When I get an afternoon where I don’t have a deadline approaching I’m going to figure out how to make something sweet out of those bitter pecans.

Thanks

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I think that it is wonderful that there is a day dedicated to giving thanks, giving thanks to God. I have so much for which to be thankful.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
‭‭1 Thessalonians‬ ‭5:18
‬ ‭

Everything good thing in my life is because of Jesus Christ. And I have a lot of good things in my life.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. James 1:17

Time would fail me to list everything that I am truly thankful for. So I have chosen to write about what is dearest me.

I am most thankful for the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I cannot understate the joy and the peace that the Holy Ghost has brought to my life.

The next best thing that has ever happened to me is my beautiful wife Sarah. I am so blessed. My children are so blessed to have her as a mother. I am so thankful for my wife.

Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord.
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭18:22‬ ‭

I am thankful for the Word of God. I have never had a question in life that the Word of God could not answer. My sincere prayer is that I may have a deeper understanding of the God’s Word.

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭

I am thankful to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I love my church. I love my pastor. I do not want to live any other way.

The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.
‭‭Luke‬ ‭16:16‬ ‭

I am thankful for my children, Wesley, Miriam, and Hollynn. Oh what joy!

Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭127:3-5‬ ‭

I am thankful for my brother Zach and sister Lindsay. We’ve always been close, but I value our relationship more than ever now.

I am thankful for a godly heritage. My parents have passed on to their reward, but I think about them every day. I was truly blessed to have Perry & Sonja Wells as parents.

Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭6:2-3‬ ‭

I am thankful for dear friends, kindred spirits.

Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭27:17‬ ‭

There is something that happens inside of me when I begin to sincerely thank God for his blessings. It is refreshing to my soul. God has been good to me.

Thanks to everyone who reads, shares, and comments on my blog. I am always in wonder when someone mentions to me that they read it. I hope that it brings you joy.

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.