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.

Playgrounds

The playground at Vincent Elementary School, like many things in the town of Vincent, was outdated and probably homemade. There was a one hundred percent chance of getting a splinter if you dared to climb onto the fort that I think was made partly from discarded shipping pallets from the papermill, and partly from untreated scrap lumber. The wood peeled and splintered into long grey and black, sword-like splinters that laid in wait for a child who was running for their life while playing a dangerous game of tag. If you made it to the top of the wooden structure without a splinter, or without stepping on a rotten or missing board, you had the option to slide down a rusty pole, which took a moderate amount of skill, or a shiny metal slide that had been preheating in the sun for the better half of the day. It was hot enough through my blue jeans, I feel sorry for the kids who wore shorts. Aside from the swings, this rickety homespun wooden structure attracted the most children during our recesses. That it was the furthest from the shade tree where the teachers sat may have contributed to it’s popularity.

But you had to walk through an otherworldly section of playground to get to the fort. A place where they didn’t even bother spreading pea gravel underneath the equipment and left the hardened red clay. The pea gravel, we had been told, was there to cushion any falls. It was here you could find odd contraptions probably designed by someone’s Dad who was free from the safety constraints and regulations placed on modern playground designers. There was a telephone pole with a spiral staircase of used tires screwed to the side, winding upward a good ten feet. There were heavy equipment tires laying on their sides, big enough to fit half a dozen kids inside. There were half buried tractor tires sticking up out of the ground like small gateways, big enough for three to climb inside if one of you was nimble enough to shimmy up the inside. The tires were my favorite part of the playground, even if they did leave me covered in black smut. Red spray paint let every child know that what resembled abandoned lumber and building materials had once been a piece of the playground but was now off limits.

Relics of playground equipment still holding up since the late sixties, such as metal monkey bars nearly a dozen feet high, were not off limits. In the very center of the playground rose a green cylindrical monkey bar tower that in my childhood mind was the pinnacle of the playground. Perched atop this stately steel keep one could watch the traffic amble by on Highway 231. You probably could have watched the traffic go by from the ground, but it would not have been as romantic.

I remember watching a kid fall down from the top of the green tower and land on his head. I was so thankful that the pea gravel was there to catch him. He held his head for a few moments as the teachers ran over to him. We all watched the teachers take care of him until somebody rounded the rest of us up and marched us back inside. The next time we went to recess there was red paint on the green tower. When the kid finally came back to school a week or so later, he was wearing a red bicycle helmet.

Within the next two years, the old playground was torn down and scrapped. A new colorful plastic, and much shorter, playground was installed and thick brown mulch was spread underneath. The new playground was a bit starchy and uncomfortable, like ill fitting church clothes. It was nice because it was new, but I sure did miss those tires.

 

 

 

Year-Round School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enduring Country Music

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, not because it was my first choice, but because my brother was an autocratic DJ. Although there are a few country songs and even country artists that I enjoy, for the most part, I endure country music. I endure it because I have been constantly subjected to it over the years. Being subjected to any type of music breeds a disdain for it. At my current job I am subjected to not just country, but modern country music, a term as oxymoronic as honest politician or men’s lotion. I could endure the modern country station with a little more patience, but I haven’t heard a single Merle Haggard song, not one!

What makes Country music enduring is tradition. These modern country lyrics are shallow. The content is overtly sexual, objectify women, and smacks of immorality, rebellion, arrogance, ignorance, and alcohol. I miss the days when country music lyrics were about Jesus. And America. And being rebellious, and cheating on your wife, and alcohol, and racism, and…well the music was better anyway.

Country music has always been most popular with working class Americans because the lyrics were so very relatable and emotional. Country musicians were bards who entertained in the local beer joints, singing to men and women who were often stuck in a socioeconomic situation with no hope of a way up or out. These songs gave them escape and release. These songs were ballads which told stories which connected with the very real struggles that working Americans were living out in their daily lives. It also appealed to their aspirations, traditions, and desires. Country Music gave a voice to many Americans.

With todays changing society, much of the culture of the American working class is rapidly becoming outdated, and in some cases taboo. People don’t farm like they did in post depression and World War II generations. There is a massive urban and suburban migration, and many dying small towns. It’s not as socially acceptable or politically correct to sing lyrics like, “Be proud you a rebel cause the South’s gonna do it again.” Today’s country musicians are aware of this and so a new image of the country musician is being forced upon one of the most loyal fanbases in the music industry. There has been a shift from singing about real social and economic issues heard in songs like, Working Man’s Blues, and Sixteen Tons, to shallower generic lyrics about girls, trucks, and having a bad attitude. In essence, modern country has long since abandoned the Southern culture and is trying to appeal to a wider audience, hence the hip hop influence and rapping. Of course there is still love to sing about, but the newer country songs push the limits of vulgarity that were set by rock and roll bands of the 70’s and 80’s.

It’s often the case that great oppression brings great hope. Although I am daily oppressed (and depressed) by modern country music, now more than ever I feel like I may have what it takes to be a professional songwriter. I think there’s probably good money to be made by writing a few tunes and letting one of these modern country guys record one of my songs. Since many establishments insist on playing modern country music, I think I could retire early. I’d like to share a few lyrics in the style of modern country that I’ve been sitting on for a while.

I got a Ford truck I painted primer gray

I’m going to go fishing when I get off work today

Little girl you ought to come with me

Maybe we can drink a little whiskey

I might look just like all these other country guys

But I’m different let me tell you why

(right here there needs to be a musical cut, then the band comes in full with chorus)

I’m a real country boy

I love Jesus, but sometimes I cuss

I ain’t into drama, don’t like to fuss

I play guitar, but I listen to rap

Got a fake accent…

Never mind. I’m fixing to go listen to some choir music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Purple Martins

I was working in the lumber department of our local big box home improvement store when I was flagged down by an elderly man in a rambler scooter. He had clear blue eyes that peered out from underneath a mesh backed hat. He moved and spoke at such a pace that when I focused on him the hubbub of the lumber department seemed to become a blur, like a photograph shot with a wide aperture.

“I’m looking for some one by fours to build a bird house for purple martins.” He said. It’s often the case with a customer like this that a simple, “Aisle forty-nine, on the right” answer will not cut it. So when he begin to describe with his arthritic hands how he planned to build the bird house I abandoned my original errand and gave him my undivided attention.

I showed him where we kept the cedar boards since he had explained that “Purple Martins won’t stay in houses built out of treated lumber.” Of course the cedar boards were outrageously priced and I eventually ended up selling him a bundle of cedar shakes for much cheaper. “Now I’ll need some finishing nails.” He said as he kept describing how he would drill a hole an inch and three quarter since anything bigger would allow other birds to come in. He kept right on expounding the virtues of purple martins the whole five minutes, four aisle trip. By the time that we got to the finishing nails I had almost decided to build myself purple martin house since purple martins eat mosquitos “by the truckload.”

I finally found some satisfactory finishing nails for him and I was afraid I was going to have to shop with him for the rest of the day when a spry old man with a flannel shirt and tinted faded prescription lenses walked up and started talking to him. They both spoke loudly to each other, although by the responses that I could hear I’m sure it wasn’t loud enough. As I walked away I understood by their conversation that they were next door neighbors. I almost made it to the end of the aisle when the newcomer hailed me for assistance. “Where’s your pressure treated one by sixes? I need to replace the fascia on my house to keep them cotton picking purple martins from roostin’ in there.”