Doris McDaniel

She wore pearls and drove a Cadillac; a great big gold Cadillac.

Mrs. Doris McDaniel spoke with an old Southern accent. An accent not easily imitated even by Southerners; Hollywood always gets it wrong. She dropped her R’s which made her sound like 19th century southern aristocracy. She also wore pearls and drove a Cadillac; a great big gold Cadillac. This certainly encouraged my childhood idea that Mrs. McDaniel had descended from royal stock. I thought she was the richest woman in Shelby County. She may also have been the sweetest.

Already in her 70’s when I was a child, she still owned and ran an old store right in the middle of Vincent. Prime real estate which set the halfway mark for the Christmas Parades. I don’t know how long she had the store, it was just always there. Kind of like her: a fixture in the town. As long I could remember, she kept odd hours at the store. People knew the store was open if her Cadillac was parked out front. The store was the only place in Vincent where you could buy a set of snow skis. It was like a permanent indoor yard sale. I think she kept the store open just to get out of the house, and to see people. People always made her smile. I think people came in to see her too. They certainly weren’t looking for snow skis.

Mrs. McDaniel was Jared and Creed’s grandmother. They called her Granny Mac. She would watch them sometimes during the summer. Whenever we got a little rowdy, she would say things like, “Oh my! Boys, that’s not nice.” She had a way of sort gasping the “Oh my”, and stretching “Boys” out to have an extra syllable. Even so, I never saw her lose her composure: She was a lady.

We would hang out at her store sometimes; stopping in to say hello and to feel the air conditioning for a moment. It was usually a checkpoint before we went gallivanting down the railroad tracks. She was always happy to see us, or anyone else that came in. She treated everyone that came into her store the same way.

The last time I saw her I was an adult. “My, my, my! Look how you’ve grown.” She said energetically. I had never noticed how petite she was until I was grown.

I introduced my wife. “How are are you hon?” She reached in for a hug.

“She is beautiful Zane.” She had a way of throwing an extra syllable in my name too.

Mrs. Doris McDaniel passed away on January 11th, 2020 at the age of 95.

If you ever drive through the town of Vincent, Alabama, you’ll probably take the old parade route: Highway 231. You’ll know you’re in town once the speed limit drops to 35 miles per hour, but you really aren’t downtown until you drive under the railroad overpass. The Christmas Tree will be on your left and Florey St with all the municipal offices on your right. There is a building on the right with a big sign that reads Doris McDaniel. Just know that one of the sweetest ladies that ever lived used to run that old store.

If that sign isn’t still there, it ought to be.

My wife and I window shopping at Mrs. McDaniel’s store.

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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The Cow Sale

One of my only surviving and most vivid memories of my grandfather Tinker Reynolds is of him taking me in his old blue Ford Ranger to the Cow Sale in Ashville, Alabama. I’m only assuming it was Ashville, I could not have been more than two year old. I’m pretty sure Dan-Dan, which is what we called him, wore a plaid shirt that day. We stopped at the grocery store and I picked out some of those nasty orange circus peanuts and probably a Grapico. It seemed like Dan-Dan knew everyone at the cow sale, talking and laughing with old men who were similarly dressed.

I didn’t go to the cow sale again until I was grown and living in Virginia. It was always fun, and the food at the little cafeteria was good. It got even more fun when I was able to start taking my son Wesley, who never wanted to leave. We would call my dad after each trip, and Wesley would give him the highlights of the sale, always most excited about the bulls. “Poppy, there was a big ole’ bull with really looong horns!” Poppy would laugh and we would talk about going to the cow sale next time he was in town. We never got the chance.

There are some things that are more easily introduced by a grandfather. Such is the cow sale. I still enjoy taking Wesley to the Cow Sale, but I am an outsider and it shows. I’m not wearing boots or a denim shirt. My hat is wrong, and I show up at the wrong time. But Wesley doesn’t realize this yet, he’s just making memories.

If there is someone that you need to make memories with, or perhaps more importantly, if there is someone that needs to make memories with you, I know just the place. More than likely, there is a livestock auction within driving distance of where you live. Just show up and act like you know what you’re doing, but be sure not to make any sudden movements during the bidding

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Sweet Tea

We never called it sweet tea at the house, merely “tea”. It was probably the first recipe I learned to make after cheese crackers, which involves folding a piece of American Cheese into quarters, placing them on saltine crackers, and microwaving them for ten seconds. They are still one of my favorite snacks, although I have graduated to Ritz crackers and cheese you have to cut with your knife. My sister once microwaved some cheese crackers for about ten minutes. They didn’t taste all that good since she had deviated to far from the original recipe. Mom taught me to make tea when I was a little kid and still didn’t mind letting her cut my hair. We consumed a lot of tea at home, and it was supposed to be your responsibility to make a new pitcher if you finished off the last of it. Woe to the person who finished the tea and placed the empty pitcher back into the refrigerator.

I’ll teach you how to make tea, it’s a critical skill. You need a pot, not a kettle. You’ll need someone else to teach you to make tea if you want to use a kettle. If you’re learning from me you’ll need a pot, like a Johnny Appleseed hat type pot that you might also use for making green beans. It helps if the handle is slightly loose. Of course you will need some tea, preferably Sure-Fine brand, which is the Piggly-Wiggly store brand. If you get Red Diamond or any name brand people will think that you are snooty. Besides, those fancy name brands do not taste as good. And make sure you get black tea, nobody cares about how healthy green tea is and you’re going to destroy any of those nutritional benefits when you add the sugar anyway. Three tea bags should do it, but don’t get the kind with the strings, cause after you place the tea bags in the pot you’re going to fill it up with water and bring it to a boil on the stove. You can also nuke it in the microwave like Nonna does, but I don’t recommend this, it’s way to easy to mess up a recipe in the microwave. Once your tea has come to a boil for a bit, turn off the heat and let it set on the stove while you pour anywhere from one and a half to two and a half cups of sugar in your pitcher. My sister always did three. Pour the scalding hot tea straight onto the sugar (this is my favorite part). Stir it around with a spoon until you feel the sugar dissolve, it’s therapeutic. You won’t have enough tea in the pot to make a whole gallon-which is the only acceptable amount of tea to make- so you’ll need to leave the tea bags in the pot while as you fill it up with water to dump into the pitcher. You’ll have to do this a few times and while it may feel unnecessary those last couple of times, there are some things you do in the kitchen that don’t have to make sense.

It’s not hard to make tea, the only way you can mess it up is to not put sugar in it. My Dad once put brown sugar in the tea and didn’t tell anyone. I guess he was being resourceful since we were out of sugar. We found out though. My Dad grinned sheepishly like a child that had been caught.

You may be wondering what tea pairs well with if you are new to tea, which is hard for me to imagine. Tea pairs well with breakfast, dinner, and supper.

Sometimes for breakfast, there wouldn’t be enough tea to go around because someone the night before left just enough left in the pitcher to justify not making more tea. Mom would ration out the cold tea into three separate tumblers. I always liked cold tea better than iced tea. Those mornings you would savor it. It probably tasted best then. Sometimes my sister would run late and she would let me have hers, along with her fried weenie and scrambled eggs.

A few months after I got married, I developed an unbearable pain in my lower back. There was nothing I could do to get comfortable. Laying still hurt, walking hurt, using the heat pad hurt, not using the heat pad hurt. I had to call in sick for work. I told my wife that I think I may have a kidney stone. “You would know if had a kidney stone” she said, and told me that I was being dramatic.

The pain lasted for the longest February that I have ever lived through. I’m not sure if tea was what caused my kidney stone, but it’s what I blamed, so I quit drinking tea in an effort to make a plea bargain with this kidney stone.  Finally my suspicions were confirmed when I passed the kidney stone at work. It was immediate relief. It sat in the bottom of the toilet, big enough for me to see clearly. I stooped down closer to get a better look and triggered automatic flush sensor on the toilet, which flushed right in my face.

By the time I finally passed the kidney stone I had broken a twenty year old habit and I decided to see how long I could go without tea or Coke-which is what Southerners call all carbonated soft drinks. That was ten years ago. It’s not that I think other people are bad for drinking tea or Coke, but I just don’t crave it anymore. It would probably be ok if I took it back up again, but I’m going for the world record. If I close my eyes on a morning when I’m running a bit late, I can picture myself at the kitchen table looking at three glasses each filled about a third of the way, and I can still taste that cold tea.

Roller Blades

For the first eight or nine years of my childhood the road transitioned from asphalt to dirt almost immediately in front of my house.  About the time that roller blades became popular in rural Alabama, they decided to extend pavement all the way to the cemetery, with brand spanking new black top. Fortunately, they didn’t mix in the gravel with the black top for better traction. There is nothing quite like skating on fresh clean black top. All of us kids thought that they had paved that road for our personal use. We probably used it way more than any of the cars. Aside from funeral processions, and a man who visited his twin brother’s grave every Sunday morning, we didn’t see many cars go by.

That first summer we did a lot of skating. I remember wearing out a pair of roller blades. The wheels wore down to a wedge. As the cars began to travel on the freshly paved road they brought little rocks that peppered our skating rink like buried land mines. If you have ever hit a rock with your rollerblades while skating down a hill full speed you probably will not soon forget it. After a few of these wrecks, we began to look for smooth, level concrete. We found it at the Baptist church. It was a wonderful place to skate. Sometimes it was shaded, and there was even a built in water fountain if you didn’t mind bending down and drinking out of the faucet.

But nothing gold can stay. One day I skated full speed into the faucet and knocked it off the wall, water sprayed out in profusion. Jared and Creed attended the Baptist church and got in touch with the church leadership. We all stood around and watched the water spray out of the broken spigot until an adult came by to shut the water off. I think he was more annoyed about missing the Alabama football game than having to fix the broken faucet. I’m not really sure if our skating privileges were revoked, but I don’t remember skating over there anymore. I think I outgrew my worn-out skates not long after than and I never replaced them. I don’t think that I’ve skated very much since then.