Wrasslin’

When I was about three years old, I convinced Mom to get me a Deluxe Hulkmania Workout Set, complete with a set of dumbbells, jump rope, hand gripper, a headband, a Hulk Hogan poster, and a cassette tape of Hulk Hogan giving a forty minute inspirational speech and walking you through a workout regimen, not to mention some pretty sweet 80’s hair metal music. I thought Hulk Hogan was the strongest man in the world.

Dad taught us how to wrestle when we were just barely old enough to walk. He’d lay in the floor and we’d climb over him. It was great fun. For the most part, Zach dominated me in the wrestling ring. He was overgrown for his age, I think he might have been born with a full set of teeth. The only time that I got the best of Zach in a wrestling match was when I wiped a booger the size of cornflake on him.

It took a few years for me and my brother to realize that professional wrestling was entertainment and the wrestlers were acting. If you suplex somebody for real, it hurts. Every week my family would have supper at least once at my grandparents, that’s where Zach and I would watch wrestling on their television. To a little boy there are not many things cooler than a man with painted face and baseball bat dropping out of the ceiling by a cable to fight a man who had 24 inch biceps who had just ripped his shirt off.

During the commercial breaks, Zach would try out any new moves that he had learned. On me. We’d usually wrestle until we knocked a whole in the sheetrock, or I got a bloody nose. It’s a wonder that we didn’t tear the house down.

From time to time, Mom would go to the grocery store leaving us at home with strict instructions to behave. We’d give her about five minutes to get down the road before we moved the coffee table out of the way and set up a wrestling ring. The living room had everything you needed for a wrestling match, a couple of comfortable chairs, an ottoman, a couch, and forty-‘leven pillows to help soften the landing as your brother pile drived you. There were always a bunch of decorations that we’d have to move too, like the ducks. Mom had about half a dozen wooden ducks that contributed no practical purpose to the functionality of the room. Over the years, we broke the head off of every single one of those ducks while we were wrestling. We’d spend about five minutes wrestling, and twenty five minutes in veterinary surgery supergluing duck heads back on. She didn’t notice either. We finally told her after we’d gotten married.

My great grandparents went to Boaz, Alabama to a live wrestling event at the National Guard Armory, because that’s what classy people did for entertainment in late 50’s. I think that armory was about the only thing in Boaz, but I might be wrong. Even today, it’s hard to imagine driving to town like Boaz for anything. The main wrestling event involved Tojo Yamamoto, a Hawaiian born American wrestler whose real name was Harold Watanabe. The wrestling company capitalized on the strong anti-Japanese sentiment that was still very much alive in the decades following the war, especially in the South, and Tojo played the bad guy.

Tojo Yamamoto was booed and heckled as he entered the ring. In the microphone, he indicated that he wanted to “Make aporogy.”

“My country, they bomb Pearl Harbor. I so sorry.” The arena went deadly quiet as he continued. “It wrong thing to do. I so sorry.” Now the crowd began to cheer

“I wish instead they bomb BOAZ!”

I grew up hearing this story every so often and it always produced uncontrollable laughter in a few of my kinfolks. Mainly my dad, who often has a hard time finishing a funny story once he gets “Tickled.”

The fact that this story has survived and still produces a strong reaction gives me hope that my ancestors understood that there was a strong element of show business in professional wrestling, and I’d like to believe that they went to the wrestling match for the humor.

Icees

Getting an Icee at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver, AL was one of the only treats that we ever got to experience while working for Pop in the hay business. Partly because Watson’s was the only store in Vandiver, which was where the hay business headquarters were located. There were three flavors of Icee: Red, Blue, and Coke. The proper names were actually, Tropical Punch, Blue Raspberry, and Pepsi, but since I had my first Icee before I had my first reading lesson, I never let these small details bother me.

You have to be careful drinking an Icee while you’re working outside in the blistering Alabama summer, there is a tendency to drink the sugary slush too fast, which results in a painful medical condition called “Brain Freeze.” My little cousins, Kyle & Chase, had a strong affection for Icees. Kyle would put his lips to the straw and would only turn loose when he got brain freeze, at which point he would grimace and grab his head until the episode passed and then he would repeat the process until the cup was gone.

Kyle and Chase were working with us before they were old enough to go to kindergarten when we’d stop and get an Icee after unloading a trailer full of hay in the barn. I remember one particular exchange my Dad had with these little fellows after we were driving back to the field after stopping to get an Icee.

“What flavor did you get Kyle?” Dad asked.

“Trocipal punch Uncle Perry.” Kyle replied, struggling over the polysyllabic adjective.

“Yeah, Red! My fravorite!” Piped up Chase.

Red was the best. As a child, it was extremely disappointing to have your hopes up for an Icee, only to find out that the only flavor available was Coke. Of course, you’d get it anyway, and suck it down until you got brain freeze. As you get older you realize that Coke is actually the better flavor.

I passed by the Icee bear this week and he brought back a flood of memories as he waved his cup full of frozen delight in my face. I almost got one, but they were out of Red.

BB Guns

“I sent Wesley a package for his birthday. I figured it would be easier to tell you after I sent it. It’s a BB Gun. I only got him 1,500 BBs, so you’ll need to get him some more pretty soon.” This is what Dad told me. 

I can remember my first BB gun. Zach and I each got one on Christmas morning when I was about four years old. Mine was a Daisy Red Ryder model. “Don’t shoot any song birds.” Dad admonished us. Zach had his gun rights recalled about half an hour later when he shot a blue bird off of the play house. 

Between the two of us, we kept the squirrels at bay. Our reasoning was they ate too many of our pecans. But we didn’t like picking up pecans anyway. We did eat what we shot though. I’ve never had much if a stomach for skinning squirrels. Or rabbits, deer, and fish for that matter. Shoot, my wife baited my hook the last time we went fishing. I know my limitations. 

The coolest BB guns that we ever had looked just like a Colt Peacemaker and Winchester lever action rifle. We would run out of BBs shooting at the Comanches and resort to shooting rocks and sticks through them. Eventually the hammer broke off the pistol and it’s hard to play cowboys and Indians when your new BB gun looks like a Colt 1911, so we shot BBs, rocks and sticks at the Germans and Japanese. 

I think that we wore out more BB guns than the average boys. It’s probably a good thing too, because I shot the girl next door with a BB gun. I don’t remember why I did it. it doesn’t matter anyway, nothing worth shooting someone over. The real reason was meanness. “Watch your legs!” I yelled as she ran across her yard. I aimed through chain link fence and got a lead on her before squeezing the trigger. I hit her right in the knee. I can’t imagine what kind of damage that could have been done if I’d have had a proper working firearm, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’m also glad her dad was a church going Christian, because he might have killed me if he wasn’t. After my mom nearly beat me half to death, I had to apologize to Tiffany, and her dad. “I don’t accept your apology!” She screamed. She was as ill as a hornet. I can’t blame her. On top of that, I had my BB gun priviledges revoked for a few years. 

Tiffany, if you’re reading this, I hope that you’ve forgiven me. Because I can’t tell you how sorry I am. 

After opening Wesley’s birthday present, I learned that Daisy has dialed back the stopping power on these newer models considerably. For that I am grateful. Well, a little bit anyway. 

Gun Safety

Zach and I used to beg Dad to let us help “Clean the Guns”, a ritual where we all would crowd around Dad’s closet and he would carefully lubricate and clean each firearm with a tin can 3-In-One oil. “Don’t touch the metal. You’ll get fingerprints all over it.” That’s rule number one of gun safety. I still make a conscious effort to not touch the metal on a gun any time I’m handed one to inspect.

Before he started wiping the firearm down, he would set the stock on his knee with the barrel pointed towards the ceiling, and we would all look at it in wonder. Each gun had a story. “I traded a bird dog in 1970 for this 12 gauge Remington 1100. I’ve killed a few deer and ain’t no telling how many birds with this thing.”

He was also prone to shooting dogs. We lived in an old house that was built on blocks. Before Dad installed underpinning, or had me and Zach install, stray dogs used to get under the house and break the water lines. One time Dad got caught up in the moment and shot under the house. Another time he chased a dog out of the yard for waking him up by barking. Dad had been working late nights and when he came to himself, he was standing out in the front yard in his underwear and work boots, holding shotgun yelling at a dog, at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. But he didn’t usually tell those stories while we were cleaning the guns.

He would then pass the 1100 to Zach, who would put to his shoulder and aim across the room as if he was getting a lead on a dove. POW, he would say under his breath, letting it reverberate a little bit as if he had shot a bird on a cool still morning in the Alabama wilderness.

“Watch where you’re aiming that thing!” Dad would say as he reached to take the shotgun away from an eight year old boy who had just nearly hit him in the head with a shotgun. “You have act like every gun is loaded.” That was rule number two of gun safety.

Dad would then hand the shotgun to me, who had been waiting impatiently to hold a shotgun that was taller than my brother. When you’re that small, you are doing good just to be able to hold the gun without dropping it, let alone stressing about proper form and aiming. My Uncle Johnny remedied this by sawing about four inches of stock off of a single shot Harrington & Richardson .410. I still remember him bringing it over to our house.

The most mystically firearm in our modest arsenal was Dad’s lever action Marlin .30-30. A genuine cowboy rifle, replete with a gold trigger. Zach & I would work the action from hip, pretending we were Tell Sackett. Dad had shot a deer with this rifle that didn’t quite die. As he was walking toward it, the deer jumped up and began to run by him, Dad leaped off a stump like Tarzan and cut the deer’s throat with a pocket knife. This story added to the mystique of the cowboy rifle.

It didn’t take long to clean oil all the guns, but the ritual of “Cleaning the Guns” also involved looking at all of the pocket knives. Dad bought us a bunch of cheap, made in Pakistan knives because he knew that we would end up losing them anyway. And he was right. I lost a Frost Cutlery Royal Flush at Mrs. Yvonne Clinkscale’s house as I was climbing a tree while my brother endured his piano lesson. I probably climbed thirty feet up into that tree.

I had a Barlow pocket knife that I threw at a tree across the road after church one day. I remember thinking that no one would see me if I went around to the side of the church. Somehow Dad saw me, maybe through one of the six windows. Anyway, he must have witnessed the knife fall about fifteen yards short of the desired target and land in the middle of the road, square on the tip, bending it at a ninety degree angle. Dad sent for me to come see him on the back pew of the church, and he pocketed my Barlow.

The only two knives that I have left from my childhood are the only two that matter to me anyway. Dad bought me a yellow handled Case Slimline Trapper when I was two years old. 

I carried that knife for about fifteen years, before I decided to get a new one.

Uncle Jimmy gave me a red stag handled Case Trapper the year after my grandfather died. He would have been 55 years old. This knife is 55 of 110. Perhaps my first introduction to gun safety was when Dad took me out by the chicken pen and sat up a milk jug full of water as a target. He raised his shotgun, drew a bead on the milk jug and BOOM! The milk jug exploded. I was just barely out of diapers looking with amazement, first at Dad and then to where the milk jug had been. Ever the teacher, Dad said, “This is not a toy.” Wide eyed and unblinking I nodded back at him. This is the principle rule of gun safety.

My cousin Kent could have benefited from a demonstration like that.  When Kent was about seven, his grandfather took him hunting. Kent sat down beside him and they waited for a deer to walk by. Which is the part of hunting that seems the least exciting to me. Perhaps Kent felt the same way because his eyes began to wonder from the field over to his grandpa who was watching and waiting diligently. Then Kent’s eyes wondered to his grandpa’s shotgun, which he held directly in front of him, the barrel directly under the bill of his cap. Then Kent’s eyes wondered to the trigger, which was closer to him as he sat the on the ground. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he slowly and quietly, sneakily probably is a better word, reached over and pulled the trigger. Booom! I can only imagine his grandpa’s surprise as the shotgun fired, blowing his hat off.

This brings us to the final rule of gun safety, in general, one gun is as dangerous as the next, but some people are far more dangerous than others.

Chicken Auction

Eclectic, Alabama. That’s a real place. I don’t remember there being anything like a gas station or flea market that would make it look like a town.  I’ve only been there once and that was to go to the Chicken Auction. That’s the only thing I remember about Eclectic. 

After driving from Tallassee, AL a good little ways out in the woods, you came upon a hand painted sign that read Chicken Auction. We went once, Dad, Lindsay and me. It was basically a chicken house with boat carpet covering the dirt floors. But They had really put some thought into decorating. There were automobile bench seats bolted to the ground and a concession stand in the back. The floors were slightlty sloped to give it a theater feel. There were probably close to seventy people there that night. 

The auctioneer sat in a homemade stand that, if you used a bit of imagination, looked like a pulpit, complete with a microphone and Peavey speaker left over from the 70s. In fact the whole operation sort of reminded me of a church. In front of the pulpit people stood in a line to sell their chickens, rabbits, guineas, and exotic birds. They even sold eggs. The line strecthed outside through a door in the side of the building. 

The auctioneer wore overalls and a collared white shirt. He had snow white hair peaking from underneath his baseball cap. He only took the hat off during the opening prayer in which he prayed for the evening’s proceedings and for several sick parishoners who couldn’t be there that night. Then he started in on anouncements.  He had the Old Southern accent, where the letter ‘R’ is only pronounced at the beginning of a word. 

“This Satu’d’y is the Confederate Flag Parade in Wetumpka. Please come out and bring yow’uh Confederate Flag. If you do not have a Confederate Flag, they’uh will be a venduh they’uh way’uh you can pu’chase one.”

After these preliminaries were out of the way, he began to call each person by name and they would step up and present their merchandise. 

“Jerry Dale, you have a nice Banty Trio here. Who’ll give me $15?.” 

From then on, his auctioneering abilities began to come through, and he went from talking slow, even for a Southerner, to a rapid machine gun speed of syllables. I could still understand him though.

Dad and I were having a great time and we almost went to the concession stand and bought some popcorn. You get caught up in the moment when you’re enjoying yourself. I always thought that the chicken auction would have been a great place to take angirknout on a date. It was a cultural experience tonsay the least, and Dad and I were were taking it in. My sister, however, was not really impressed. But you can’t expect everyone to be cultured. 

Sleeping at Church

I usually went to sleep during the evening services.

I used to sprawl out on the front pew at church, use a stack of Sing Unto The Lord hymnals for a pillow and go to sleep. I would try to stay awake by finding faces in the wooden paneling and trim in the sanctuary, but that might have just made it worse. There was a lion, and two bearded old men in the wood grain of the door frame that led to the Sunday School classrooms. If you saw them once, you saw them every time. I’d also try to find characters in the carpet, or look at the map of the Middle East that hung behind the organ. But as a child, these were futile attempts to keep Old Man Nod from riding on my eyelids. I usually went to sleep during the evening services.

It’s one thing for a small child to sleep during the service, but another thing for a grown up to fall asleep at church. I’m sure it’s discouraging for a minister to look out at the congregation and see an adult nodding. My Uncle James was bad about sleeping during church. Or anywhere else for that matter. He fall asleep once at the red light. As dangerous as it may be to fall asleep at a red light, I don’t think anyone noticed. When he woke up he didn’t realize how long he’d been there, or how many green lights had come and gone. It was long enough for someone behind him to blow the horn. I’m sure he was embarrassed, but not too embarrassed to tell on himself so everyone else could have a good laugh. Southerners are considerate that way.

He was sleeping at church one Sunday and the pastor asked him to stand up and pray over the offering. Someone nudged him and said, “James, they need you to pray.” He stood up and dismissed them. Someone else told that on him, some things are too embarrassing to share yourself.

Barbecue, Barbeque, BBQ

It’s that time of year. Barbecue season. I’ve always struggled with how to spell that, but WordPress autocorrect just informed me that the proper spelling was “Barbecue”. I bet they won’t tell that to Golden Rule Barbeque in Irondale, which has been around at least hundred years longer than autocorrect. They probably won’t tell Fat Man’s Bar B Que in Pell City either. Or Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Anyway, I’m still not sure how to spell it, because I “ain’t never eat no” BBQ that WordPress cooked. But even if I can’t spell it, I can define it. At least I’ll give it a try. Defining barbecue is like defining women. You’ll excite half the people and offend the rest.

First off, barbecue is a noun. I think it’s pork. Mainly Boston Butt’s, but if you want to throw some ribs on the grill while we’re waiting for the butts to get done I’ll still eat them and call it barbecue. I eat so many ribs one year when I was a boy that it was several years before I had another one. If you want to get deep and go to the root meaning of the word barbecue, it means “cooking a whole hog on a wood fired grill”. Which is where we get the term, “Whole Hog.” Which means that you go all out doing something. I’ll use it in a sentence so you’ll understand it better.

“Zane is taking this writing thing seriously, I heard he’s going whole hog and trying to write a book.”

Barbecue also has to have some sauce. My Uncle Johnny was always the self appointed grill master at all of our family get togethers in the summer. Not without good reason though, he is an excellent cook. He would crupper up his own sauce recipe using Kraft Original as a base. “Cattleman’s tastes too much like ketchup, don’t use it.” He would say. When the meat was done, he would pull it apart or chop it up, put it in a deep pan and pour enough sauce over it that it would  almost simmer and bubble as it sat on the grill. He always made two pans, one regular and one hot. He liked it hot. He didn’t have any teeth and chewed tobacco. I don’t think that affected his taste buds though. Once he ate breakfast with us and drank the tomato juice out of the serving plate. I watched him in wonder as he slurped the juice, set the plate down and lick his lips. He sat there a moment enjoying his draught. Then he said,”There was a bad tomato in there.”  Anyone with taste buds that sharp wouldn’t have been inhibited by tobacco juice. Anyway, Uncle Johnny liked his barbecue hot. He liked everything hot. He made gravy so hot one time that the cats wouldn’t eat it. As a kid, my mom would warn me about the hot pan of barbecue. “It’s hot baby, you won’t like it.” I grew up thinking that the hot pan of barbecue was going to burn through my esophagus. When I was finally old enough to fix my own plate, I tried some. It was delicious.

I’ve rambled a little bit here. We were defining Barbecue and I’ve already offended all the Texans and Carolinians. It’s probably just easier to tell you what barbecue ain’t, and that’s hamburger and hot dogs. You’re supposed to fry hamburgers in an iron skillet and roast weenies in the fall around a fire. If you get invited to a barbecue and they’re cooking hamburgers and hot dogs, I’m sorry, but those people have misled you. I’m sure they’re nice people and all, but I wouldn’t let them watch my kids if I were you, next thing you know they’ll have them playing soccer or something crazy like that. 

A Barbecue (see how I capitalized it) is also defined as a sacred feast for Southerners, where pork is cooked on a wood fired grill outside. This feast usually lasts about three days.

In general, we had about four or five Barbecues a year. We did have the official family reunion at my Great Uncle Freddie’s on the river, and sometimes we barbecued there. But all the same people came to the barbecues at my Aunt Edna’s, just up the hill from Pop’s, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. And whenever Pop deemed it was angood time to have a Barbecue.  Since the location, menu, and people were the same each time, the only way that I could tell a difference in all of those holidays was that we shot bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. To me, these summer holidays were simply Barbecues.

The Barbecue would start on Friday night. “We’ll serve dinner on Sunday at noon.” Pop would say. Up until then, we feasted. We might have a fish fry while the barbecue was slow cooking. Somebody might throw some Cornish game hens on the grill and eat them while we were waiting on the main course. One time my Uncle James put a Boston Butt on the grill and then left. He come back about six or five hours later and his meat was about half gone. He singled Uncle Johnny out, “You done eat all my barbecue Johnny.”

“I can’t eat t’at James, I ain’t got no teeth!” Uncle Johnny retorted.

“Yeah, but you kin bite a railroad rail in two with them gums of yores.”

Barbecuing a whole hog is a lot of work, but man is it worth it. There is nothing like slicing the meat off of a hog and eating it around the grill. All it needs is a little bit of salt.

This is the grill that Pop & Uncle Johnny used throughout my childhood. You can see the front peice is on the ground. You can cook whole hogs or just use the grill to cook Boston Butts and ribs. 

When Sunday finally rolled around, we would eat, not just barbecue, but we had a buffet of sides that was five tables long under Aunt Edna’s carport. It was also about fifty yards from the grill. I’m not writing about sides though, I’m writing about barbecue.

When I close my eyes and work up a hankering for barbecue, I still see my family sitting outside around a humongous oak tree. Many of them have passed on now.  I envision myself as a little boy with thick glasses walking to the grill down by the tree line. They were pine trees. Uncle Johnny pulls the front of the grill open to throw a couple of pieces of hickory wood on the fire. Sparks fly everywhere. I walk in front of all the old men sitting around the grill and ask Uncle Johnny to dip me out some of barbecue on my bun. “No sir, I’ll have the regular.” I say. I take a bite of that barbecue sandwich, and blink to get the smoke out of my eyes. That’s really how I define Barbecue.

That giant oak tree finally died and they had to cut it down before it fell on Aunt Edna’s house. I’m sure they used some of that wood for a barbecue. Uncle Johnny showed my brother how to barbecue a coon’s age ago. He wanted to pass it on to the next generation. Although Zach learned on the other grill, I feel like he mastered this one. I’m going to get one of these someday. 

Since I’ve moved to Virginia, I haven’t been to a proper Barbecue in over a decade. Perhaps that’s why I’ve expanded my definition of barbecue to include Brisket, chicken, and dry rub. I even like that old nasty vinegar stuff they try to pass as barbecue down in the Carolinas. No matter what barbecue I try, nothing is quite the same as those summer Barbecues of my childhood in the blazing Alabama heat. It’s hard to capture that whole experience in a restaurant. 

It seems like every year when the weather changes I get invited to someone’s place for a barbecue. I’ve learned to be polite and go, but I know it’s going to be hamburgers and hot dogs.

Faulty Equipment

“Y’all boys are rough on equipment.” That’s what Mr. LaDuke said after my cousin Kent had broken three ax handles, a weed-eater and wrecked a moped. I guess we were pretty rough on equipment, that’s why half the every day tools and gear that we used in the hay field were broken to some degree. Pop was forever adjusting the square baler, which was always shearing pins, whatever that means. Most of the trailer jacks were bent. The old Ford truck had a tricky clutch that I never could get to cooperate. For every piece of faulty equipment, there would be a new oral operating manual that must be followed in order to get that particular item into proper working condition. These instructions were far from intuitive, and in some cases nothing close to the original manual, but I guess it was cheaper than replacement.

This rings true for every other place that I’ve worked over the past twenty years. The copier at one job requires you to jiggle drawer A before you can print. The computer at another place requires a restart before you can use the audio. The espresso machine at another place requires additional warm up time. There are always locks that require an odd key angle and a prayer. And vehicles that require you rev the engine to keep from overheating at a stoplight. I’m sure you’re thinking of a piece of equipment at work that you’d like to hit with a sledge hammer.

Probably the most dangerous faulty equipment that I have worked with were vehicles that required you to start them by bypassing the solenoid. I’m not dead certain what that even means, or why we had to do it, but basically, instead of cranking the engine with a key, like a normal person, you lay a screwdriver across the positive battery terminal and the negative terminal into the solenoid. This bypasses the solenoid relay switch and starts the car. Oh, and the key needs to be in the on positing in your ignition. 70% of the time it works 100% of the time.

This process is pretty simple on a lawnmower. Sometimes you see sparks fly off, but that’s part of the fun. If you have long arms and longer screwdriver, you don’t even have to get out of the seat of a zero turn to start it with this method. It’s a little bit trickier when you’re doing it on a truck. At one particular job, there was an old Ford Bronco that required this staring method. We were in downtown Winchester, VA getting a new lawn mower tire installed when my boss, Shawn, first showed me how to jump start the solenoid to start the truck.

I was so proud of myself when it fired right up and I got ready to back out into the street, with my lawn mowers on the trailer behind me. As soon as I put the Bronco in reverse, the engine stalled. I had to pop the hood, crawl out of the vehicle, and jump the solenoid with a pair of pliers. It fired right up this time. In reverse. The Bronco began backing out into the busy street. Panicking, I flung the pliers down and raced to catch the runaway vehicle. Fortunately I had left the door open and only had to run about twenty feet before I jumped into the moving vehicle. Once I got into the drivers seat and got the truck stopped I started breathing again. I was going to play it cool and just keep driving, but as I put the vehicle into gear I realized that the hood was still popped. I’m sure the people in the tire shop got a good laugh seeing me scramble so. I’d have laughed too. A couple of years later that Bronco burnt to the ground in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Equipment tends to wear out with normal use. But sometimes it gets help from clumsy employees, abuse and misuse. I can hear Mother’s everywhere saying, “This is why we can’t have nothing nice!”

Liars and Lies I’ve Been Told

Since the majority of the history in rural towns is oral, my goal is to give you a few tools to help you differentiate between what’s fact and what’s oral fiction.

I’ve spent much of my life sorting out which of the stories given to me as a child were true and which were not. It’s not as easy as you’d think, because much of the time the truth can be more outrageous than any liar’s tale. For instance, my Great Grandfather, Daniel Webster Wells, used to catch catfish out of the Coosa River that were four feet long. I know this is true, because I have pictures. I know that I shot my neighbor with a BB Gun too, as I got a terrible spanking for that. But there are some stories that I haven’t quite been able to verify. It’s these tales that make you wonder, not because of the bizarre content, but because of the source.  Some people are fun to listen to, but not very credible. In the harshest terms, they are liars. There are so many types of liars that it’s almost not fair to group them all in the same category, but God isn’t fair, he’s just, and he decided that all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. I do not condone lying, but this is not a sermon, it’s more of a essay on the different types of liars. Since the majority of the history in rural towns is oral, my goal is to give you a few tools to help you differentiate between what’s fact and what’s oral fiction.

Some liars are habitual, and lie for lying’s sake. Jerry Clower said, “Some folks would rather climb a tree and tell a lie before they’d stand on the ground and tell the truth.” These liars have no motive for lying other than it’s just what they do. I had one of these type of liars tell me that there was a family who adopted a child from another country and they were having a hard time with the child because in the former country, yes meant no, and no meant yes. The same person also told me about an infant sitting on their mother’s lap as she was sewing. At some point the child cried out and the mother picked up the baby and held it on her shoulder, patting it’s back. The child instantly let out a gasp, but didn’t cry anymore, but the mother missed her sewing needle. Fifteen years later, the child now a young lady, complained of a pimple on her back. When her mother went to squeeze the pimple the needle shot out of the girls back. I know from experience that these habitual liars get mad when you don’t believe them.

My favorite type of liars are the entertaining liars, they lie because they have an audience. They don’t tend to get mad if you don’t believe them as long as you are entertained by the tale. Most of the entertaining liars I’ve met could have made honest careers as fiction writers. I had a liar of this ilk tell me that as he was driving to my house, he saw a prominent citizen in our community on his roof, dressed as Santa Claus, reading the newspaper while sitting on the chimney, apparently using the restroom. Now that’s pretty funny and outrageous, but if you knew the citizen, you would have found yourself wondering if it was true. Another time, the same talebearer told me that he had heard someone call in to the classic rock station and give the following testimony. “I love the Lord, and I’m thankful that he’s given me a sound mind. I appreciate the uplifting music that y’all play, it really blesses me. I just want the Lord to make me humble and (h)umble.” Of course, we knew who he was lying about, and it was funny, but also not unbelievable. You have to be careful with these entertaining liars, or you will establish their credibility by believing and repeating their lies.

Once, my brother, cousin, and I were building a fence at my grandmother’s place. There was a withered old man with a tracheotomy and cowboy hat who came out to watch us as we built the fence beside his residence. I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but as Zach carried the heavy post driver over to the next post, the old man stated that he had “once picked up a syrup mill by himself.” Now Zach, never been one to “enjoy a good lie”, was not about to let this slide, having recently spent a whole day making sorghum syrup. He dropped the post driver and said, “They ain’t no way you picked up a syrup mill by yourself.”

My cousin, who was quite a story teller in his own right, tried to calm Zach down and let it be, hoping to draw out more of the tale. “Just let him alone Zach, maybe he did.” And then to the old man, “How much did that syrup mill weigh?”

“He ain’t picked up no syrup mill Anthony.” I suppose liars don’t like to be called out, and soon the old man went back inside leaving us to our work.

Some liars will not retreat as easily when faced with the truth. I place these in the category of the ignorant liar, which is someone who doesn’t let their lack of knowledge keep them from teaching. These proud liars will be able to dominate any conversation on any subject with their wealth of knowledge. Some folks call them “Know-it-Alls”. Once I remember a conversation with a man about construction of a building in Childersburg, AL being halted after Indian artifacts were found during the initial excavation.

“I shouldn’t wonder that they found some Indian pottery, you can dig just about anywhere around here and find Indian pottery and arrowheads.”  He said. This was true enough, I used to find arrowheads all the time in the cotton fields behind my house, but he took it further and capped his statement with, “Childersburg is the oldest city.”

I asked him incredulously, “You mean in the Coosa Valley? Or the State of Alabama?”

“Naw! Childersburg is the oldest city in the world!” He said arrogantly.

What makes these particular liars so annoying is that you can’t convince them of what is true. When you argue with a fool, you always lose.

Calling a liar in many cases will get you nowhere. Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut. If someone is lying they’ll eventually trip over one of their own lies. If I feel like I’m being told a lie, I like to ask verifying questions. A liar will never disappoint you when you ask for details. It helps if you can remember these details and then ask again a month or so later. If you’re lucky, they’ll start in on a fresh set of details that contradicted the set from last month. Even better they’ll be unsuccessful in trying to remember the set that they gave you last month.

The last type of liar I’d like to mention would be the exaggerator. What might start out as embellishment, will turn into a full blown lie. I’ve been with people that are recounting a story of which I was an eye witness, and I find myself frowning because I don’t remember it that way. Or someone will tell a lie about something that they didn’t do and then say, “Ask Zane, he was there.” Which is another lie.

My mom was babysitting a child once who told her of all of the things that he’d stolen. My mother was disappointed and admonished the child that it wasn’t good to steal. He replied, “Aw, I’s just lying.” You don’t have to teach children how to lie, you’re supposed to teach them not to lie. If you are a liar though, you show your children how to lie. This is why lying runs in the family. There was a time when it was a shameful to lie, and people knew it was wrong. That must have been a long time ago.

 

Nursing Homes

I was probably too young to go, but my parents were committed, so I went to everything.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to take small children to sing at the nursing home, probably some adult who did not take into consideration how terrifying elderly wheelchair bound people can be to a five year old child. I was probably too young to go, but my parents were committed, so I went to everything. The nursing home we chose was a dismal place. The residents looked completely defeated, the staff had a martial air about them and the whole facility gave you the feeling of complete hopelessness, more like a prison than a care facility. Perhaps the one we visited was simply outdated, but I’ve visited others as an adult and I get a similar feeling.

I was too young to read so I was only obligated to sing from memory. My brother Zach, and Corey Barber did not get off of the hook so easily, since they were capable of not only reading, but counting too, which enabled them to use the Sing Unto The Lord hymnal. Sis. Vivian, Corey’s grandmother sat at the piano with her back to us and called out the page numbers to the each hymn as she played. In our church, we hardly called a song by it’s name, but rather used it’s page number. “Please turn to page 315.” Page 315 was Jesus Hold My Hand. Page 94 was Amazing Grace. As Zach and Corey turned the right page, Sister Vivian would play  an intro on the piano, and by then we were ready to sing. I’m sure our mothers enjoyed it. I think the residents might have just enjoyed seeing some small children, even if they had trouble hearing us. I did not enjoy it. I wasn’t miserable, I just wanted to play.

It was during one of these fidgety moments, probably about the third song, that I decided to pinch Zach on the rear end. He whipped around mid chorus of I’ll Fly Away and gave me a mean look and probably would have hit me but everyone was watching. In the midst of all this the music and the singing never stopped. Mom came and grabbed me by the hand led me to the side of the makeshift auditorium. It was really more of a wheelchair parking lot. Barring this incident, the show kept right on going. As Mom focused on singing I wondered around on the fringe of a crowd.

As we were about to leave, Mom went up towards the front to do something, possibly sing and I was left alone in my seat. One of the residents, an elderly lady in a hospital bed, pointed to me with a crooked finger and said in a weak voice, “Come here to me little boy.” Rear end pinching aside, I was an obedient little boy and I went straight over to her and said, “Yes Ma’am.”

She took my hand and put it on the back of her neck and said, “Scratch here.”

I would like to pause here and give some advice. If you are ever in a strange place and an elderly lady in a hospital bed asks you to scratch her neck, don’t do it. It’s a trap.

No amount of preliminary lecture on my behavior could have prepared me for a situation like this. There I was, not even in Elementary School, in a nursing home, doing the very thing that my parents had spanked me for not doing, minding my elders. As I was scratching the lady’s neck, a nurse rushed over and took my hand away. “Don’t touch the patients.” She said firmly. I didn’t get a chance to explain myself as she led me to Mom.

I’m glad to report that during my subsequent visits to nursing homes over the past twenty five years I behaved myself much better, although a lot of time I still get that same dismal feeling. I will also add that unless you’re playing like Merle Travis or Chet Atkins, don’t bring your electric guitar to the nursing home.