The Google Reviews I Haven’t Left

Here are a few bad reviews that I didn’t leave, but wanted to.

I only leave five star Google reviews. If a restaurant or business isn’t worth a five star review they certainly aren’t worth my time to give them a lower rating. While some people might “Cause a scene” as my Dad would say, I try to avoid confrontation. If service or the experience is bad, I just won’t go back. Which is part of the reason why I only really like to go eat at about three places, Hamburger Heaven, Taquiera Las Cebollitas, and you guessed it, Chick Fil A.

Hamburger Heaven, my favorite restaurant.

But sometimes I get worked up enough to want to say something. Here are a few bad reviews that I didn’t leave, but wanted to.

Three Star Grocery Store

At best this place is a compromise. People don’t shop here because this is a great grocery store, but rather to avoid going to town. Unless you are getting a rotisserie chicken-which are pretty good- or it is an absolute emergency I would avoid trying to shop here. They also picked the worst possible music to play too loud, which always puts me in a foul mood. How am I supposed to find the pectin while some grown man is whining and mumbling-I’ll not call it singing-about his feelings?

Two Star Home Improvement

The only thing this place has going for it is that there is no other competition in town. Which is a shame, because our town would benefit from having options. In theory having competition would make the current store sure up their customer service. More than likely though all these workers would just jump ship to the new store because they look pretty miserable now.

Two Star Home Cooking Restaurant

The pandemic has not been kind to this restaurant. The problem with chain restaurants is many decisions that should be made locally are made in some corporate office a thousand miles away, or in this case 167 miles away. The last time I ate here I’m glad we had a gift card, because I would have been mad if I would have had to pay for rock hard mashed potatoes.

Four Star Italian Restaurant

I really wanted to leave a five star review because my food was excellent. But there is more to a restaurant than good food, and unfortunately the service fell short. The teenage waiter was friendly enough, but frankly he forgot about us and we waited a long time for our check. Which made me wonder why we waited a long time to be seated.

Perhaps I’m turning into a cranky old man who fusses about paying first class money for second class service. Kind of like my dad. As a kid I remember thinking he was making a big deal about something trivial, but now I begin to understand his frustration.

We perpetuate the decline of quality when we continue to accept lesser quality at the same price. If I have a bad service experience at a restaurant but still go back, I’m likely to have another bad service experience the next time and the restaurant will think that I’m ok with it. Or I could just start leaving bad reviews.

Tater-Tot Poisoning

Sarah fried tater-tots the night before a doctor’s appointment the other day. They were so good that she decided to fry some more right before the appointment. I did not know this, or rather, I do not like to retain this in my knowledge, but fried potatoes and more specifically salt (which every self-respecting person knows must go on fried potatoes) can elevate your blood pressure. Which kind of unnerves doctor’s.

“I’m not telling you this to scare you, and don’t rush down there, but because your blood pressure is elevated (along with some other factors) you probably need to go to the hospital to be monitored. It could be nothing, but you could be having a baby tonight.” This is what the doctor told her.

So we pawned the kids off on my sister and headed to Birmingham. We stopped at Hamburger Heaven in Gardendale in case it was the big one. The hospital has a tendency to starve you half to death when you are in labor. We went ahead and got burgers and fries because we wanted to make sure her blood pressure would still be elevated so the hospital trip wouldn’t be in vain.

After about an hour or so hanging out in the hospital room, they told us we could go home. Which was a relief, because I had forgotten my eye drops and my contact lenses have a 100% chance of drying out if I plan on staying up all night reminding Sarah to breathe. It was a good practice run anyway.

Last week Sarah went to two appointments and even without tater-tot poisoning, her blood pressure was still high. Anyone trying to raise two children probably needs to check their blood pressure. So the doctor wants Sarah to be induced.

So I’ve written all of this to let you know that we are having a baby this week. Our other children weren’t this predictable. We let them decide when they wanted to come-Sunday night after we’d been at church all day and Christmas morning respectively. Unless it happens before, we should have a baby this Thursday, October 1st, 2020. I can’t wait to meet this little tater-tot.

Rabbits

The rabbit was not living up to it’s image on the lawnmower throttle.

Wesley just chased a lethargic rabbit halfway around the garden and up the fence line behind the barn. The rabbit was not living up to it’s image on the lawnmower throttle. He must have doubted Wesley’s accuracy with the bamboo javelin he had poised for throwing. It looked a bit like a Road Runner cartoon in slow motion.

I have seen rabbits run a lot faster. Like the time we were working in the hayfield and had just stopped to get a drink of water to keep from dying from exhaustion in the sweltering heat. Up sprang a little rabbit. My brother jumped up chased him halfway across the hayfield before catching him in dive. He was parallel with the ground, arms stretched out in front of him. The rest of us watched cooly from the shade of the truck and sipped the ice cold water from little dixie cups. Zach panted triumphantly back to the truck and held out a tiny rabbit that was visibly throbbing from adrenaline and fear.

“You boys ain’t tired if you can still catch rabbits.” Pop said as he stirred us back to work, as if I had been out there chasing rabbits along with Zach.

Not surprisingly, the best rabbit story I can offer comes from my Dad. Back during the Reagan administration, my parents and Uncle Tony were setting on the front porch of the house were I was raised. Dad was leaning against the column and drinking a Pepsi from a glass bottle when someone noticed a rabbit out next to the kudzu. That’s about thirty yards away, depending on the last time the grass was cut. Kudzu can grow about a yard a day. Uncle Tony tried to hit the rabbit with a rock, but he missed. Which is not surprising since his glasses are as thick as mine. The rabbit tensed up and sat frozen while Dad took the last swig of his drink. Then he held onto the post with one hand and leaned out into the front yard and casually lobbed the empty glass bottle over a crepe myrtle tree in the general direction of the rabbit. The bottle struck the rabbit square in the head and killed it graveyard dead.

I’ve never intentionally killed a rabbit. Even when I was conned into going hunting in the back yard with Dad and Zach. I don’t remember what exactly we were hunting, but I jumped a rabbit in the sage patch and watched him bounce away while I held my shotgun on my shoulder.

“Hey, there goes a rabbit.” I said proudly.

“Why didn’t you shoot it?” My Dad laughed.

Now that I have a garden, I can relate a lot more to Farmer Brown and Elmer Fudd than Peter Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. I’m almost ready to start intentionally killing rabbits. I’ve taken the first step by giving Wesley a slingshot and a sack of marbles.

Thanks for reading, sharing, and for your continued Support.

Zane Wells

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.

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. 

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.

 

Play Houses and Tree Houses

When I was three or four, my Dad built a small playhouse in our back yard.

When I was three or four years old, my Dad built a small playhouse in our back yard. It was about eight by eight feet, complete with a door, window facing south and a tin roof. This playhouse was also a tool shed for all the shovels, axes, mattocks, sledgehammers, and various other garden tools. There was a shed on the back where we kept the lawnmowers out of the rain. I can remember the day that Dad leveled the concrete blocks and framed up this one room house. I was probably in the way, but it was pretty fantastic watching the building come together. Once the building was up, Mom painted the floor white and then let Lindsay, who was just a toddler it seemed, dip her hands and feet in different colors of paint and walk around on the floor. Really, this play house was intended for Lindsay, the lawnmower shed was for Zach and me. All the same, we all enjoyed playing in the playhouse for those first few weeks. After that, a colony of wasps invaded and Mom and Dad spent the rest of my childhood keeping Raid in business and the wasps at bay.

Later on, my parents added some cabinets to the playhouse and used it for storage. They put everything in there, yard sale furniture that my mom planned on refinishing, salvaged building supplies for the coming remodel, the old kerosene heater, and various other items that were not of immediate use inside of the house. At one point there were large sacks of dried pinto beans. One day, Lindsay and I were playing in the play house when I noticed that Lindsay was being really quiet. I looked around to see her sitting in a pile of the spilled pinto beans with a funny look on her face. Her face was contorted as she wiggled her nose like you do when you have a cold and you’re trying to breathe. “Did you stick a bean up your nose Lindsay?” I asked. She nodded yes. I ran to the house to let Mom know what she had done, not that I was overly concerned about my Sister, but I wanted to make sure Mom knew that I had nothing to do with it. Mom tried unsuccessfully to get Lindsay to blow her nose, and Lindsay screamed like a wildcat as Mom drove the bean farther up into her sinuses as she tried to retrieve it. After this, we all piled into the van and drove to my grandmother’s house to perform the minor surgery that was required. Gram, my grandmother, held Lindsay down as mom poked a sewing needle into the bean and pulled it gently out while Lindsay screamed the entire time. I don’t think she’s ever done anything like that since.

While Mom and Gram were extracting the lodged bean, Zach and I were busy playing outside. Gram had a proper playhouse that was built on posts about seven or eight feet off the ground so you could park the lawnmowers underneath. You enter the playhouse through a trapdoor in the floor reached by an angled ladder made of two by fours. It was always a gamble to open the trap door at the top of the ladder, because you never knew what creatures might be waiting for up there. I remember a lizard crawling out onto someone as they open the door and nearly every time that we played in the playhouse, someone got stung by a bee or wasp, but that was hardly enough deterrent to keep us from playing in that stuffy old building made of rotting OSB chipboard. Once the adults saw that there were holes in the floor big enough for several kids to fall through three at a time, they stopped allowing us to go up into the playhouse at Gram’s place.

Playhouses are pleasant, but what most kids want more than anything is a tree house. Our friends down the road, Jared and Creed, each had their own tree house so they wouldn’t have to share. Their tree houses were really just tree platforms, but we didn’t care,  we spent countless hours hiding from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Foresters, picking off Viet Cong, and ambushing Apache Indians from those tree houses.

All of the trees in our back yard were pecan trees, which are prone to splitting and aren’t a good option for a tree house. We did have some humongous oak trees directly in front of the house, but Mom wouldn’t stand for a tree house in the front yard. The closest thing we had to a tree house at my house was about fifteen nylon straps that we used as seats in the Mimosa tree situated in the middle of the Kudzu patch next to our house. Mom had gotten a roll of thick material to weave the bottom in some kitchen chairs and we cut lengths of it to tie between the many forked branches in that Mimosa, creating a comfortable slingshot looking seat. Mom counted eight boys in that tree one day. My brother had a dog named Sadler who would get up there with us, he could climb about halfway before we had to help him up the rest of the way. It was an easy tree to climb, I even climbed it backwards once while trying to get away from a green snake. We killed the pitiful little snake with the same hatchet that my cousin Kent had almost chopped the limb he was sitting on out from underneath himself. “You know when you finish chopping that limb you’re going to fall about ten feet?”  Someone said, and we all laughed. Kent stopped and looked puzzled for a second. “I don’t guess I even thought about that.” I believe him. I don’t remember doing as much playing in the Mimosa as we did just sitting and talking, planning what we were going to do next. It was our trysting place, and we spent a good portion of time there until the one day one of the straps broke. It wasn’t long after that Zach and Creed got jobs down at the local grocery store Smith’s and we stopped climbing the tree.

We never did fix up the tree house, it went the way of Gram’s playhouse, and our childhood went with it. Even the playhouse Dad had built got another life as a garden shed as Dad got more and more into gardening once I was in High School. The tree houses and play houses bring to my memory a flood of childish decisions that were made there: climbing a tree too high and getting stuck and being unable to climb down, or falling out or a tree only to be saved by your foot being wedged in a forked branch, or losing your favorite pocket knife as you carelessly romped through the woods and Kudzu to the Mimosa. Another thing that comes to mind is how incredibly fast time went by, one moment you’re playing in the play house and the next moment you’re home from Virginia for a weekend and your Dad is showing you the garden beside the garden shed. In some respects childhood is a blur and you need to visit with an old friend to bring events back to your memory. The play houses and tree houses are the old friends that I’ve chosen to visit this week and they represent a time in my life that has faded away as I’ve became a man and put away childish things. It’s easy to gloss over the dumb and dangerous things that you did as a kid and only focus on the fun that you had, on the other hand, it’s hard to forget someone else’s mistake or close call and all too easy to remind them of it. Even when recalled, these embarrassing moments will quickly slip back into their proper rarely visited place in our memories as we focus our thoughts on the transient minutia of the fast paced lifestyle of a responsible adults. The things that are seemingly all important today and quickly forgotten tomorrow cause us to feel like our clocks are working double quick. I just hope time can go a little slower through my kids’ childhood than it did through mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practical Jokes

“There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness.”

There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness. The line is determined by whomever is on the receiving end of the joke. This has always made practical jokes a gamble, albeit an enticing gamble for a mischievous boy. A good practical joke on a sibling could be enjoyed by all, but adults have a finicky sense of humor sometimes, especially if they have been “gotten” by a child. I could only tell when I had crossed the line from good humor over to blatant meanness after the joke had been played, because I always got whooped for meanness.

My grandmother, Nonna, took me to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga when I was eight or nine. It seemed like it took forever to get there. I don’t know if it was the distance or the Southern Gospel AM radio station that she listened to, WURL, where you are loved. It was worth the wait, because the aquarium was pretty amazing. I still have vivid memories of all of those fish. Nonna let me pick out something from the gift shop, I got a rubber copperhead snake that was about five inches long, which was quite a monster when paired with the 3 3/4″ GI Joe action figures that I took with me everywhere. There was a time in my life that I did not of observe the sacred ritual of the Sunday afternoon nap. Instead, I had the option to “play quietly” as my parents slept between church services. It was one of these afternoons that, on a whim, I put my rubber snake in the salt shaker. My parents, like all good Southerners, were quite fond of salt. Our salt shaker, not the fancy decorative type that people collect, was a solid utilitarian piece resembling a plastic coffee cup with a slightly domed screw-on lid. It was possibly the most used kitchen utensil getting only slightly less use than the sweet tea pitcher. I had to scrunch the snake down a bit since it was taller than the shaker, but eventually I was able to keep it in as I screwed the lid back in place. It took about a month before the salt needed to be refilled, and I had forgotten all about hiding the snake. Dad happened to be the person that noticed that the salt was low, and when he unscrewed the lid, the rubber copperhead sprung out of the shaker. Dad hollered and threw the salt shaker across the kitchen table, spreading the last of the salt all over the kitchen. I was thankful to be in the bathroom at that particular moment, or I would have gotten a spanking. I waited until Dad had calmed down a little bit before coming to survey the fruit of my forgotten labor. I mark this incident as the introduction to my work as a practical joker.

Every Fourth of July and New Years Ever, Zach and I would beg Dad to buy us a brick of bottle rockets. Sometimes we got whistlers and Roman Candles, but in my book, nothing comes close to a bottle rocket. At first, we would try to light our fireworks with those pitiful incense sticks that they give away when you make your purchase at the fireworks stand, but eventually we came to trust in the BIC cigarette lighter. We would nearly burn our thumbs off shooting those bottle rockets into the air, or at each other. Zach once bounced a whistler off my face. Every once in a while you would try to light the fuse and the fuse would come off in your hand. You can still light these fuse and they’ll spit and sputter just like a live firecracker fuse, but without any explosion. Once, while Mom was standing by the stove, cooking something delicious, I lit a fuse and threw it on the kitchen tile. “Watch out Mom!” She scrambled to get to the other side of the kitchen. After the fuse fizzled out and there was no explosion, she was not amused. Not only did I get a whipping, but Zach got to shoot the rest of the bottle rockets without me.

In the third grade, I had a friend named Kevin Boozer. He was a good deal shorter than me, wore a letterman style jacket and had neatly combed blond hair. We were buddies until he moved away abruptly and I never saw him again. We used to talk on the phone after school, and I was surprised to hear him swear like a sailor. Our desks, the table style desks with detached chairs and an open drawer underneath, were arranged in a U and Kevin sat directly across from me. I don’t know how I was able to be so stealthy, but one day as Mrs. Wright was teaching, I crept under the desks and tied Kevin’s shoelaces together. By and by, Kevin raised his hand to be excused to the restroom. This being a mild distraction from the lesson, everyone stared at Kevin as Mrs. Wright gave him permission only after making sure that it was an emergency. His first step was fine, but as he took his second step the laces went taught and he fell face first in front of the entire class. Mrs. Wright stifled a laugh. I had to take a note home to my Mom, who did not stifle her laughter. Despite this injury, Kevin and I remained friends.

One Halloween, Jared and Creed had each received a realistic rubber mask for their costumes. One mask was a gorilla and the other of an old man. Zach and Creed about gave Mom a heart attack when they looked into the kitchen window while wearing these masks.

As an adult, I’ve become a bit more mellow with practical jokes, but only a bit. I was a new hire at my current job a few years ago when I decided to wrap the Christmas Tree in toilet paper. The lady who had spent so much time decorating the tree was furious and took all of the toilet paper, wadded it up and threw it on the desk of the man who she thought had committed the offence. The man, who was out of the office at the time and didn’t know about the tree, did not realize that this was a counterattack, but took it as an unprovoked attack. This set off a chain of retaliations against the two, who didn’t need much provoking to get at each other anyway. I didn’t say anything for a few years, I’ve learned that anonymity is the best policy when playing a practical joke.

Humor, like language, is handed down from one generation to another. Since my recent ancestors struggled in life to provide for themselves, they could do little in the way of inheritance for their great grandchildren. Frankly they were poor. But they were rich in humor. Humor is the closest connection that I have with some of my forefathers. My Uncle Doss loved a good practical joke. He once found a pair of false teeth in the river while he was fishing. After he boiled them in the wash pot, he wore them proudly. That’s not a joke, I’m just letting you know what kind of person he was.

Uncle Doss was my Dad’s Grandmother’s Uncle. I’ll write this filler sentence while you reason that out in your mind. Uncle Doss lived in rural Alabama in the first part of the twentieth century. In a time were the South was still reeling from Reconstruction. There were no streetlights to light the dirt roads and fewer cars than horses and buggies traveling on those same dirt roads. It was a time when superstition abounded. The Black community in Uncle Doss’s time and place were not only superstitious, but also very religious. Each Sunday they would get up early and walk together in large groups through the winding dirt roads through the woods on their way to church. They would spend the entire day at church, having diner between services and returning in a group late in the evening. Knowing this routine, Uncle Doss decided one Sunday evening to lay in wait unseen on one of the embankments that the road had carved into the side of a hill. This way he could dangle a piece of white wrapping paper by a string from about ten feet above the road while making eerie noises as the wind blew the paper to frighten the faithful parishioners on their way home from church. Uncle Doss tied the six foot string to his overall galluses and sat down by a tree on the embankment high above the road to wait for the home bound worshipers to pass. He did not take into account that church would go longer due to a special service, and as he was waiting, he fell into a deep sleep. When he was aroused by the night noises of the dark forest, the first thing he saw was the spectral wrapping paper floating in the wind. He got up and ran in fright, now fully awake and petrified with fear. Looking over his shoulder, he saw to his dismay that the ghost was chasing him. “I ran until the briar patch stopped me.” He later recounted. Sometimes a failed practical joke is funnier than it’s intended end.

Like you, I’ve been involved in too many practical jokes to recount here, and even if I did, most of them would not be funny. All out meanness is never funny, and a practical joke is only funny if nothing gets hurt, except for pride.

 

 

Skipping School

“Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy.”

Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy. Middle schoolers can be some of the meanest people on the planet. Perhaps it’s because the average middle schooler is a walking identity crisis and unsure of their self. This insecurity causes many to lash out at everyone else. Combine this with questionable parenting and the rural Alabama Public Education System and you’ve got the makings of a pretty miserable place for anyone to be, much less try to learn. When I was in Middle School, so much of the teacher’s energy was spent on misbehaving kids who weren’t interested in learning and their parents who weren’t interested in anything that there was little left for students who were there to get an education. As I recall, I got in a number of fist fights in middle school. I don’t say this to brag, but to let you know that I’m not embellishing when I say that middle school was one of the most trying times for me as a young boy. I guess it did prepare me for the real world. I remember everyone getting picked on in my middle school, fat kids, skinny kids, tall, kids, short kids, black kids, white kids, mixed kids, locals, new kids, foreigners, boys, girls. Maybe your middle school experience was different. You should write about it. My experience in middle school is one of the reasons that I am still in youth ministry today.

I tell you this so that you will understand why I would have rather strung tomatoes than taken a field trip to Atlanta with some of the meanest people I knew. When I convinced my Mom that most of my class would be on the field trip and there would be no point in going to school, Dad decided to take the day off and float the river with me. Ordinarily, we would have just gone fishing, but as I recall the boat motor was out of commission, so we decided to float from the Kelly Creek landing to McGraw’s landing, a few miles down the Coosa River.

I remember it being cold as we got an early morning start at Kelly’s Creek. The morning was still and there was fog on the river as we launched the boat. I think when you’re on the river at daybreak you get a more perfect understanding of what God meant in Isaiah when he promised to extend peace like a river. The river is one of the few places where you can still imagine what it the world was like before the industrial revolution, automobiles, and, well, before people moved in. When you’re out there it’s not hard to imagine that the forest you see on the bank goes on for miles and miles.

It was always fun to observe the wildlife on the river, a turtle as big a manhole cover, or a water moccasin, but on this particular day it seemed like we saw more wildlife than usual, probably because we didn’t have our loud outboard motor to break the still air and disturb the peace. One of the first things we saw that morning was a raccoon sitting on a log that hung down into the river from the bank. After pausing for a moment to study us, the raccoon turned around scurried back into the woods. As Dad steered the boat to the Eastern bank with the trolling motor, we watched a pair of turkeys fly silently through the fog across the river, they were just a few feet above the water. When we got to the eastern bank a deer jumped into the river and began to swim across. All of this happened within a few minutes of being on the river.

It seems that the fishing was good that day, even if Dad had to do it all himself. Dad knew all the best spots. We would anchor the boat and sit until the fish stopped biting. Bass like to be around underwater structure and we were anchored by an old concrete pipe when we noticed a school of gar breaking the water not far from the boat. Gar have swim bladders that can be filled by gulping air. They do this to supplement their oxygen in poor water conditions. If you’ve ever seen a gar, it will make you think twice about swimming in the river. They are long skinny fish with long snouts and long sharp teeth.  Gar comes from the old English word for spear and they just look mean. Normally, you wouldn’t want to catch a gar, because they’re not good to eat. But on this day, I thought it might be fun to catch one. Dad made a single cast into the splashing school of gar and caught one on the first try. When he finally reeled it into the boat, it was about four feet long and too big for our net. The top snout had been broken off about halfway down. It’s funny how you remember odd things like that. You have to be careful cutting your lure loose because those gar teeth are sharp.

As the day wore on it began to get hot. We anchored the boat a little south of Buzzard Island in hopes of catching a few fish. I forgot to mention the other wildlife creature that we always seemed to encounter on the river: mosquitoes. The mosquito’s favorite food source is human blood. They sound pretty sinister when you read it like that. We sat in a visible cloud of mosquitoes while Dad tied on a new lure. Since it was so hot and the mosquitoes were eating us alive, we decided to jump in the river to cool off and escape the mosquitoes. It’s surprising how cold the water can be when the sun is as blistering you on the surface. I can never swim too long in the river because my imagination gets the better of me and I start thinking about gar, and alligators, and alligator gar, and water moccasins, and the Loch Ness Monster, and before I know it I start thinking that I’d rather take my chances with the mosquitoes. It’s a little harder to get into the boat than it is to dive out. Especially when you think that there is a five hundred pound snapping turtle about to get you. You’re afraid for a second that you’re going to sink the boat as you climb to safety. Even so, every time we went fishing after that I wanted to go swimming. You tend to forget about the river monsters when you’re about to die of a heat stroke on the river.

Somehow, Dad knocked a rod and reel into the river as he was climbing back into the boat. I should have been more sympathetic, but I was just glad that it wasn’t me that did it. He tried several times to dive and retrieve it but to no avail. He had owned that reel since he was just out of High School, and I know he was upset about losing it, but he didn’t let it ruin our day. It’s never fun to lose a tangible object that is dear to you, or worse have it taken from you. But I value the memories that I’ve taken from the river more than I value the physical things that I’ve lost in the river. Or that Dad has lost river. I think he shares the same sentiment, although I’d be afraid to ask him about it if I had have been the one to lose his fishing pole.

We finally made it to McGraw’s Landing in the late afternoon with a cooler full of fish and a heart full of memories. Of all the years we spent fishing, this particular time stands out vividly. Maybe it was because I was skipping school with my Dad to go fishing. Not that anyone else was at school, since most everyone in my class went on the field trip to Atlanta. I’m sure they had a good time too, making fun of each other, and stressing out the chaperones, but I am pretty confident that many of them might have benefited more from a day on the river with their father than any field trip our public school system could have offered.

Uncle Dave

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of that generation.

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of his generation. He wore overalls, a collared shirt, a cap with a mesh back, and work boots. He drove a single cab pickup truck, and was a farmer. Sounds pretty stereotypical, but it’s true. He should have worn glasses all of the time, but mostly he kept them in a soft case in his shirt pocket. In his old age, Uncle Dave became hard of hearing and had to walk with a cane. I’ve heard rumors that used the cane to correct smart mouthed teenagers at Uncle Raymond’s gas station pool hall, but I didn’t witness it. However, I was sure to not smart off around him no matter how deaf he was. I think his vision might have been going as well at the end of his life, and he was bad about pulling out in front of traffic and driving really slow. I also remember some complaints that he had nearly run cars off the road while he was on his way to sell watermelons in front of the High School, or at the gas station in the neighboring town. He would drop the tailgate, put up a canopy and take a nap in a folding lawn chair until someone pulled over to buy a watermelon.

Uncle Dave was the third of ten children. He was almost named for his father, David Reeves Reynolds, but his parents decided to name him Dave Ray Reynolds. Dave was raised not far from McGraw’s Ferry on the Coosa River, where his father was a sharecropper. Mr. Reynolds also worked across the River at the gunpowder plant during the second world war. One day after returning home from work Mr. Reynolds asked young Dave why he hadn’t plowed very much.

“That mule was getting tired and I stopped him Daddy.” Dave said, thinking that his father would understand. A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. Mr. Reynolds must have not put as much stock in that passage as he did in,“Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying”, and he about beat Dave to death for not having plowed enough.

The next day Mr. Reynold’s came home from work and found Dave sitting on the plow in the field with the mule laying down.

“I didn’t stop him today Daddy. He stopped himself.” Uncle Dave had plowed the mule to death.

I didn’t spend too much time with my Uncle Dave and many of my memories come from Easter Dinner at his house. Most of the extended family would make their way to Uncle Dave’s house after church on Easter Sunday, and we would have a massive spread of food outside: Ham, fried chicken, dressing, green beans, deviled eggs, man I’m making myself hungry! Once after the blessing was asked for the food, Uncle Dave put his hat back on and said, “Amen and dig in!” After everyone had eaten, all the young children would wait inside the house while the adults would hide the Easter eggs in the cow pasture. The little kids were hoisted over the barbed wire fence first to get a head start, then the rest of us would climb through the fence being careful not to tear our pretty new Easter clothes, and join in the hunt.  I would sometimes pass over the dyed boiled eggs in search of the prize eggs with money inside. I think for meanness the adults would sometime stick a prize egg in a cow patty. After all of the prize eggs were accounted for and pictures were taken, we would play softball in the cow pasture using paper plates as bases. The game would usually wrap up after a foul ball dented a car parked next to the fence.

Uncle Dave sometimes attended our church on Sunday morning, the United Pentecostal Church that his mother had attended since the ‘50s, and his brother and my grandfather Brant Douglas Reynolds, had served as pastor. I don’t think their father ever attended this church. The story goes that once as my grandfather was trying to invite him, and Mr. David Reynolds said, “Tinker, I’m four things: a Baptist, a Democrat, a Mason, and a Klansman, and that’s how I’ll die.” I’m pretty sure he died that way too.

For a short time, there was a restaurant in Vincent called Yo Mamma’s, and Uncle Dave was a faithful patron, dining there several times a week. He always ordered catfish. This became part of his routine even after the restaurant changed hands. He would also frequent the Huddle House in the neighboring town. One day Dad and I were eating there and Uncle Dave came in and sat down in the booth behind us. After Uncle Dave ordered a young man walked by and Uncle Dave spoke to him.

“Charles Ray! How you doing?” ask Uncle Dave.

“My name ain’t Charles Ray.” The young man said. This simple fact did not seem to bother Uncle Dave, because he was hard of hearing.

”Charles Ray, how’s ye’ mom an’em doing?” Uncle Dave pressed.

“I don’t know who Charles Ray is.” The man said, a little flustered.

“Huh?” said Uncle Dave interrupted the man before he could finish explaining that Uncle Dave had him mistaken for someone else.

“Old Charles Ray.” Uncle Dave said wistfully with a chuckle as the man sidled off.

After this short interaction, I wondered how much Uncle Dave had heard when we had just spoken to him. Uncle Dave probably spent the rest of the day thinking that he had talked to Charles Ray and wondering what Charles Ray had said back.

It seems like the family were always worried about Uncle Dave because he was so much older than many of the brothers and sisters, and he had fought some battles with his health some time before I was born. In spite of their worry he outlived many of his younger siblings by decades. I think about Uncle Dave every time I see an old single cab Ford Truck going well under the speed limit. He set his own pace in life and didn’t get too worked up about anyone else’s agenda. I think we could all benefit from Uncle Dave’s philosophy by slowing down our busy lifestyles. Just keep your glasses on and don’t pull out in front of anyone or run anybody off the road.

 

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