Camping

My earliest memories of camping were Dad taking Zach and me out to Black Jack, a vast wilderness owned by the paper company I think. We would set up a little dome tent and build a fire. Dad would let us play in the fire with a stick, probably the best part for a little boy. We always camped in the fall, no sense in camping with mosquitoes and rattlesnakes. 

Most of the time we roasted weenies and marshmallows, but one particular time Dad went all out and made some barbecue chicken quarters over the fire. He seasoned the chicken, wrapped it in aluminum foil and placed it on one of those flimsy folding metal grills that set over the fire. We sat patiently around the fire on our five gallon buckets staring into the flickering flames.  Just before the chicken was finished cooking it began to rain. First softly then a steady drizzle, then we retreated into the tent as the bottom dropped out of the sky. The water began to rise as we sat huddled in our sleeping bags hoping for the rain to subside. After about a half an hour and half an inch of rain in the tent, Dad decided to abandon camp. We loaded our essential belongings into the truck and headed home. We ended up leaving the tent to retrieve another day, but the saddest part was that we never even got to try the chicken. I don’t think we ever camped at Black Jack after that.

From then on we camped on some relative’s property that had a small lake where we often fished. Looking back now, I realize how little I was, out of diapers, but not in school. It was Dad’s rule that you had to be out of diapers to go camping. In the mornings, we would go hunting not far from where we had camped. I would sit against a tree with Dad while Zach sat by himself a few yards away. He probably had a better chance of killing a deer by himself, because I was making too much noise playing with action figures. I never did catch the hunting fever like my brother, but I still like to go camping, and it just doesn’t feel right to go camping without a gun.

Zach and I camped with Jared and Creed once on the back border of their Dad’s property. Mr. Sherwood McDaniel, their father, had cleared the perimeter and it was here that we spent many hours playing. Zach and Creed were old enough to work at the store, so Jared and I were supposed to tend the fire until their shift was over. The gainfully employed older brothers had gone shopping before hand and brought some provisions for that night. I’m sure they got some good food but what I remember is the knock off Grapicos, they were nasty. We, the keepers of the flame, discovered that a can of Coke, knock off or genuine, will explode with a tremendous noise if you place it in the fire and forget about it. Creed and Zach were not as impressed.

While Zach was still in high school it was not very hard to talk him into camping. We’d often make the decision ten minutes before the store closed and then rush to set up in the dark. I can’t tell you how many times we camped like this as teenagers. 

The older we grew, the less sleeping we did when we went camping. The most miserable part about camping is waking up about half frozen and filthy with smoke, your breath tastes like you been eating dirt all night, and then having to clean up all of the camping gear. There was a point when we stopped fooling with bringing a tent and just stayed up all night. This made it easier to camp at the drop of a hat, all we really had to pack was food. Food is the best part of camping when you’re a young man.

One night it snowed on us, a rare occasion in Alabama. It didn’t last long, but it was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. A big bright moon shining on freshly fallen snow, a few guys sitting around a campfire not fully appreciating the moment. 

I do not recommend taking your wife camping on your first anniversary.

This morning the air was crisp and cold, and full of that certain smell that comes with fall, a cool damp fragrance that almost burns. These are the conditions in which to camp. 

Last year my church organized a men’s camping trip. We had two fires, one to play in and one to cook in. It drizzled rain on us all night, but the little boys that went hardly seemed to notice. I still enjoy playing in the fire, and you better believe that I still enjoy eating around the fire, but as an adult, what I like most about camping is the comradery. There is something significant about the gathering together of men for the sole purpose of fellowship.

2018 Men & Boys Camping

“We’re going camping on November 1st Wesley.” I told Wesley a week ago.

“Do I need to start packing?” He replied.

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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Ramblin’

Ice cream with your Dad. If that’s not entertainment, I don’t know what is.

In a town with one red light there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. There was Smith’s, or to the locals, “Smiss”, the grocery store, but even if you were really taking your time and got stuck behind somebody’s grandmother who was shopping for a family reunion, you could see the whole store in less that ten minutes. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what entertainment means. I suppose that it’s what you do for fun whenever you are caught up with all the chores at home. So when all the grass was cut, or there were no pecans left to pick up, Dad would take us what he called Rambling. It was Dad’s form of entertainment. Essentially, my brother Zach and I would pile into Dad’s red Mazda pickup truck and drive around back roads for the better part of the day.

It was always a surprise to go rambling, not something that we worked up to, like fishing, but something that could be done rather quickly when you discover that you’ve found time, but not made time. I never knew where we were going, although I was relatively certain that we’d stop at the store to get a cold “drank”. Dad would get a Pepsi, Zach a Dr. Pepper. I would get a Grapico. We’d set in the truck and enjoy our drinks. After the policeman pulled Dad over because he saw one of us standing up right next to Dad, we had to start wearing our seat belts. Being the youngest, I had to set in the middle with both legs hanging over into the passenger floorboard, so as to be out of the way of Dad shifting the gears. I remember being really worried about learning how to drive as I watched Dad press the clutch and shift the gears in that little truck. How was he so coordinated? How did he know when to shift them?

“You can listen and the motor will tell you when to shift the gears.”

I would do my best to listen to the motor through the hissy static of the AM radio broadcasting the Braves game. I was so intent that I would hum along to the pitch of the engine as he accelerated through the gears after stopping at a lonely stop sign on some back road. I was mesmerized by Dad’s ability to drive with only his thumbs.

There were various destinations although I don’t recall guessing, I was just along for the ride. We’d often go to the Logan Martin Dam and climb across the guardrail to peer down to the rocks amongst the stench of dead fish where the men cast out into the churning water hoping for a catch. There was an old man there named Mr. Bird. He was always there, but if he wasn’t fishing, you might as well pack up your tackle and go home.

Sometimes we went to visit a distant relative who removed an oxygen tube to take a drag on a cigarette. I only remember these people because Dad took me to see them. They would have never been able to make it to the barbecue at the next major holiday. But I remember them, if only faintly through the eyes of a child. They’re gone now, and I wonder how many stories with them.

We would visit ancient cemeteries so Dad could point out where a great grandfather was buried. I could barely read then, but I wish I would have taken better notes. It was interesting to see the graves of people who had been born in the 18th century. Dad taught us proper cemetery etiquette: don’t holler, and don’t step on anyone’s grave.

We ate a few times when we went rambling. I remember going to Jill’s restaurant in Leeds one day. Dad came walking back from the counter with two ice cream cones half a foot high. Ice cream with your Dad. If that’s not entertainment, I don’t know what is.

Through rambling, Dad immersed us in the art of looking out the window while you’re riding in a car. He taught us how to spot a Red Tailed Hawk, and where to look for a Great Blue Heron. It’s still a thrill to be able to point out a herd of deer on the side of the road, or a redbird on a fencepost. You can always tell when you’re riding with someone who never did any recreational riding. They won’t appreciate your superior observations skills, and will usually complain about watching the road, or make some remark about traffic before looking back down at their phones.

I go rambling sometimes with my two kids now that Sarah is letting them both ride in the truck. We drive slowly by the waterfall, neither of them can argue that it’s not on their side since everyone is on the same row. Wes usually rides in the middle with his feet over in the passenger floorboard so I can shift gears. I’m still a little wary of these new automatics. We’ll get some ice cream and I’ll point at the hawks.

Rambling 5/25/2019

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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.

Fencing

It has rained a lot here this week, which brings back fond memories of not hauling hay. Rain was welcome any time during the summer, but was often a harbinger of hard labor in the fall and winter, because it’s easier to drive fence posts into the rain softened ground. I don’t know how they found Pop, but they did, people who needed a barbed wire fence built through a swamp and over a mountain.

For those who may not be experienced, building a barbed wire fence involves driving a six foot T-Post into the ground with a “post driver”. Which is two foot length of rusty four inch steel pipe with about 30 lbs of steel welded to the end and uneven handles six inch handles welded to the sides. Its a two man operation, one man (me) holds the post still with both hands, and the other man (my brother) hoists the post driver over the steadily held post and lets it drop, setting the post into the ground. Then the second man commences to pick up the post driver and slam it down onto the post, driving it down into the ground until your post reaches the desired height. If you are strong, like my brother was, you can drive a post in about three slams.

The quality of your fences depends on the primitiveness of your post driver. You need to avoid any post drivers with paint, that are store bought, that can be picked up with one hand, and pose no risk of head injury. People who have these kind of tools probably want to sell you an invisible fence. No, a post driver needs be pitted and rusty, and so heavy that you have to use both hands, even if you’re strong as half an acre of garlic. All of your tools need to have at the very least, a thin layer of rust on them. Judging by the tools that were available to us, we were professionals.

I don’t really want to describe stringing barbed wire. I would advise you to use gloves.

I don’t know how many miles of fence that we built when I was a kid, but I know we walked the whole way. Sometimes over mountains and through bushes “Where a rabbit wouldn’t go.” We were building a fence at a place very much like this, with a branch, or creek, running through it one day when it dawned on me that I did not have a lunch and it wasn’t likely that we were going home for lunch. Fortunately, Pop had packed enough lunch to share, two sleeves of Ritz crackers and a sack of oranges. It’s important to note that up until that day, I didn’t even drink orange juice with pulp, much less eat oranges. You’ll try most anything when you’re really hungry though, and I ate my orange quietly, and I enjoyed it. Hard work can give you an appetite like nothing else can.

It is in human nature to pretend to be an expert on any particular task, no matter who menial, that you have been hired to do, especially if you are around someone who has no experience in that particular task. This assumed expertise makes one bold when handing out advice and offering constructive criticism for someone else’s work. I guess at more than one point in my life my soul source of income was derived while I was employed building fences. I was a professional fencer. I have thought often times of putting this on my resume, but I don’t like to brag. I do however do a thorough inspection of any fence that I come across.