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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On Government

It was with high ideals that I first learned about our government. Having read about it in our hoard of books at home, and with my father’s voice guiding me through each page, I held the founding fathers and the men who fought for us in the American Revolution in high regard. These weren’t mere men, a foreign concept to many in today’s society, but they were great men. Men with conviction. Men who lost fortunes for freedom.

Learning about government in school was quite a different experience. I was always puzzled by the role of the legislative branch. Why did we need new laws? Did people not understand right from wrong? It became apparent to me as a child that not everyone in my class, and maybe even a couple of teachers, had not grown up with a set of Encyclopedias and bookcase in every room of their home. In classes like civics, and government, I heard some the most bizarre ideas articulated and espoused that I am still more than a little concerned to know that those people are now voting.

I was chosen by our faculty to attend Alabama Boy’s State during the summer before my senior year of High School. Boys State was founded in the 1930’s to combat the Hitler Youth programs. Each year, schools all over the country send a select group of boys to a week long camp where they will create a miniature model of their state government. This mock government is complete with Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Judges, and all of the various commissioners and elected offices that make up the bureaucracy of their given State. At the end of the camp, two representatives, usually the elected governor and lieutenant governor, are chosen to attend Boys Nation, were a model of the Federal Government is created, and delegates get to meet the President of the United States. The boy that was elected governor of Alabama the year prior to my attendance was elected President of Boys Nation. Judge Pete Johnson, the Director of Alabama Boy’s State, had been a Boy’s Nation delegate and had met President Kennedy. While Everything I had learned about the government so far had been theory, Boy’s State was practice in every sense of the word.

I arrived at the University of Montevallo and upon registering was assigned a “City”, or Dorm. Each City was named for former Boy’s State Director. For that week, I lived in the City of Fann, which was the second floor girl’s dorm. We were also assigned one of two parties, Nationalist or Federalist.
I was a Nationalist.

In our first party meeting. We were tasked with establishing a party platform, and choosing candidates. As most of the large crowds I have been a part of had been at church, it was unnerving to be in such a starkly divided crowd trying, or not trying in many cases, to find common ground. The issues that we could not agree on, much like today, were Abortion, Gay Rights, and the Lottery. We argued for so long, that fearing we would run out of time, some adults intervened. They advised us to ignore these hot topic issues. We followed this terrible recommendation and developed one of the weakest party platforms in history, only rivaled in shallowness by that of the opposing Federalist party.


Looking back on the process we used to elect candidates that we did not know is quite comical, until I realize that it is also how it is done in real life. Anyone who felt so inclined was given two minutes and a microphone to convince the party why he should represent all of us. There were some vulgar remarks, quite a bit of silliness, and a hand stand by a snooty soccer player. In the end, we were able to narrow it down to the popular kids in each city, at which point there was another round of convincing with slightly extended microphone time and an admonishment to not pound the podium, the adult supervision not having ever heard a Pentecostal Preacher. At last we, brimming with patriotism, elected a boy from England to run for “Lufftenant” governor. Ultimately, he won the election and when it was discovered that he was a noncitizen, Judge Pete Johnson, being a member of some kind of naturalization or immigration board, pulled some strings and the boy was naturalized in front of the whole delegation at general assembly. It was quite moving and he cried a little bit. I’m not even sure why he was there if he wasn’t a citizen, but I’m also not sure why I was chosen, and I was born here.

Throughout the week we heard a few special speakers. They were mostly politicians who rambled about growing up poor, or growing up rich. One evening before one of these speeches, three boys played their electric guitars in front of the whole delegation. They played Sweet Home Alabama, probably the purest performance of anyone we had heard all week. The speaker was the honorable mayor of Fairfield and future 30th Mayor of Birmingham, Larry Langford. It was immediately apparent that he was the sharpest dressed man in the building. He walked to the podium and called the three guitar slingers back up on stage. “It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of a crowd of this size and give an outstanding performance. Y’all impressed me so much that I’m going to give each of you, out of my personal money,” here he paused to reach into his front pants pocket and pull out a handful of cash, “each of you a hundred dollars.” From the giant roll of money, he peeled off three crisp one hundred dollar bills. He did it with great ceremony and it made quite an impression on the boys in attendance. I recalled this incident when I began to read about Mr. Langford in the Birmingham News for running up a near six figure tab at Gus Mayer. The incident was again recalled when he was indicted and ultimately convicted for bribery.

Although there were many interesting things that happened at Boy’s State, probably the most important thing for me was realizing how the State government actually worked. As a result of a weeks immersion in the workings of the political system, I became disillusioned with government in general. After working in County and State Government for nearly my entire adult career, my views on government have repeatedly been confirmed. It is not the honorable, nor the noble that are elected, but the popular. It is not the faithful men of character that allow their name to run for public office, but the self promoters. Righteous laws are not passed, but popular laws.

Given the world’s current political situation, it would appear that with such a dim view of government I must be a miserable pessimist, or a political extremist. I am neither. Think me not unpatriotic. I am proud to be an American. Proud not in the haughty, raised up sense, but in the unashamed sense, proud. I cast my vote with a feeling of grave responsibility. I believe that our form of government is the best that man can do. After all, it is founded on biblical principles.

“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” – Isaiah 33:22

The problem is not what form of government to which you subscribe, they all work in theory, but once you add people, the key ingredient, the whole thing runs amuck in time.


“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.” Isaiah 40:7

In conclusion, I find it hard to get worked up about something that God gives so little thought.

“All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” Isaiah 40:17

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 through 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.

Pop’s Hat

I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop was always getting on to us for not wearing hats while we were working outside. And he was right too. It’s not too hard to catch a sun stroke working in the blistering Alabama heat, and more than once I remember getting a splitting headache because I had forgotten my hat. You get all dizzy and your vision kind of goes black, it’s just a whole lot easier to wear a hat. Pop also believed that you should wear long sleeves to keep yourself cooler in the summer. He was probably right about that, but I never tried that. I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop didn’t just tell us all that, he lived it. Pop never forgot his hat. There are probably people that have never seen him without a hat. He usually wears those mesh back trucker style hats in the summer, and full on cotton baseball cap in the winter. He wears them perched on top of his head. I have often wondered how they staid on.

Pop used to get Zach and me up at the crack of dawn to deliver hay. We’d get up early to beat the heat in the barn. Sometimes we’d make several trips from the barn to the client. sometimes it was a horse farm, sometimes a hardware shop, sometimes just a customer who needed to feed their cows, and even construction company. Now construction companies are not particular about the quality of the hay they get, since they only need it to spread for erosion control after they’ve planted grass. The horse customers are extremely particular, but that’s a different story. You could bale up a briar patch and sell it the construction companies and they wouldn’t care. Pop called that kind of hay mulch hay. Which I’m not sure is the proper term, but it get the point across.

One morning Pop had us load up a trailer and truck full of mulch hay to take to a construction company on the outskirts of Birmingham. Pop drove, Zach road by the window and I sat in the middle. That’s what I got for being the smallest. It didn’t matter how early we got to this place, it seemed like it was always scalding hot in the metal trailer where we had to unload that scratchy mulch hay. Once we got finished and piled in the truck, hot and sweaty, Pop rolled the window down for us. He always preferred the breeze over the air conditioner, and he wouldn’t let you run the AC with the window down. Which makes sense, but I’d rather have run that air conditioner. Pop had just merged onto highway 280 when a big 18 wheeler flew past us and Pop’s precariously perched hat almost went with it. He took both hands off of the wheel and grabbed his hat and socked it back down on his head. It’s a wonder that we didn’t have a big wreck, make the news and turn Vulcan’s light red all in a flash. After the smoke had cleared, Pop looked over at Zach and me, smiled, turned on the AC, and rolled up the window.

 

Vacation

I only ever remember taking one family vacation growing up.

I only ever remember taking one family vacation growing up. I was two years old when the whole family went to St. Louis, Missouri to visit some family friends, Sharon and Richard Davis. We drove Dad’s little red Mazda four cylinder pickup truck with a camper on the bed. Lindsay was under a year old so she was privileged enough to ride in the cab with air conditioning and the radio. Zach and I rode in the bed of the truck the whole trip. Mom was kind enough to give us a blanket to sit on and plastic three liter Mountain Dew bottle in case we had to go to the bathroom, which was great fun. We had no clue that this was not the proper way to go on vacation. Mom and Dad must have wanted to get away real bad. I remember falling into the penny pool at the bottom of The Arch, and being rescued by Andrea, the middle Davis girl.

For the rest of my life, we didn’t really go on vacation. I’m not even sure what a normal vacation is supposed to be like. If it’s what I think it’s supposed to be like, we couldn’t have afforded it anyway. What we did find a way to afford and what we looked forward to more than anything was spending time in Montgomery, Alabama at the Alabama District United Pentecostal Church Campgrounds on Pike Road. The original building was built in 1918 as one of the first schools with grades 1-12 all under one roof. At the time, High School was considered higher education, hence the “High”. The Alabama District had purchased the old brick school in the ‘70s and converted the classrooms into dorms and used the auditorium as the sanctuary. There was a big “Debt Free In ‘73” Plaque in the old lobby with the names of people who had donated to help pay off the mortgage early. My grandfather’s name was on there. By the ‘90s, a new sanctuary had been built beside the old school, I remember the new sanctuary always being freezing cold, I think they trying to make that air conditioner make up for all the years that it was absent. I didn’t complain, we didn’t have air conditioner at my house until I was eight and I think my parents had the same mindset.

There were four different week long camps held each year during the month of June: Crusader Camp, Jr. Youth Camp, Sr. Youth Camp, and Camp Meeting. Each of these camps roughly coincided with elementary school, middle school and high school, with camp meeting being for the whole family. Every June from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, I spent at least two weeks at the campgrounds for the various camps held there.  Camp was so great an influence on my life that it became one of the annual events that I still use to measure the years in my life, the other being Christmas. The focus of each camp was the same: Church. The daytime would be filled with games and activities, and the night time we would have church. There was also a day church session.

Crusader Camp was my introduction to camp. I remember The Hoppers were the feature children’s evangelists. I was and eight year old from a small congregation in a small town, and for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a minority. Our church taught gender distinction and to put this doctrine into practice, I only wore long pants (and still do) and my sister only wore skirts or dresses that covered the knee (and still does). Perhaps this dress code was a little redundant seventy five years ago when ladies had only just begun wearing pants, but glancing at the current gender identity crisis we have in America, I think we made the right choice. I’ve always stuck out- perhaps not as much as my sister- for dressing modestly, and Crusader Camp was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. This was the longest that I’d been away from home in a single stretch. I had so much fun that I could have stayed another week.

I remember one year the air conditioner died in the dorms and the heat was unbearable. At about midnight, all of the boys were led out to lie down on the cold cafeteria tile, and the girls went to the freezing sanctuary. As soon as the counselors got everyone to stop giggling and lay down, the air conditioner came back on and we had to gather everything up and go back to the dorms. I’m very thankful for air conditioning.

Jr. Camp is when I really wanted to start playing the guitar. The two main events were softball, and choir. Since social media was not on the scene and  good decade away  from saturation, we were just excited to be able to hang out with our friends and we didn’t really need an event packed day to have the time of our lives. Long distance telephone calls were still expensive, so we would just sit and talk at the snack bar if we didn’t play softball. I loved playing air hockey at Jr. Camp, but what I looked to most was hanging out with friends, especially girl friends. The premier event at Jr. Camp, and Sr. Camp for that matter, was the Pizza Banquet on Thursday night. Guys would ask a girl to be their date and we would eat Domino’s Pizza after service in the back of the sanctuary. While we were eating, we would have Midnight Madness which is a lot tamer than it sounds. There were skits, messy games, music, but mostly comedy. People were easier to entertain before YouTube and social media.

In a time before cell phone cameras, we would buy a few disposable Kodak film cameras, snap terribly framed group pictures, and order double prints so we could share them. There is something ceremonial about viewing your pictures when they come back from the one hour photo at Wal-Mart. You sit down on the couch and pass the pictures around and relive the moment, a week or so later. It seems that camp was one of the only times I thought it was important enough to take pictures and I have a stack of pictures from different events at the campgrounds over the years. I remember feeling a lot cooler than I look in these pictures.

By the time I was old enough to go to Sr. Camp, I had already made a host of friends and I looked forward to seeing them at camp every year. By my second or third year, I was playing guitar for the worship team. I don’t remember the first time that I got to play guitar at camp, but I know that Bro. Stan Davidson had a hand in it. Getting the opportunity to play guitar at Youth Camp when you’re fifteen was a pretty big break, and I’m still thankful for that opportunity. Playing at Youth Camp opened the door to play at Camp Meeting. I don’t want you to think that I was an amazing guitar player at fifteen, I was painfully average, but playing in front four or five hundred people forced me to excel. Men like Stan Davidson and Zane Isaacson believed in training young people. They made me feel like a real musician and encouraged me to keep at it. Encouragement is something that was lacking in my community. People who could only whistle would criticize you for trying to learn an instrument. Camp provided me with confidence and opportunity to be a musician.

Something that always plagued the campgrounds was an outdated septic system. Not only were the pipes laid in 1918, the system wasn’t big enough to accommodate a small army of teenagers. Every year someone had to work on the septic system in some capacity. By the time we were teenagers, Zach and I were also emergency staff members. One year the sewer line got clogged sewer line, and Zach had to help out, I was fortunate enough to be at band rehearsal, so I got out of helping that time. When they opened the release valve, sewage sprayed about fifteen yards. When he was done with that job, he just threw his clothes away.

Once a year, not during the camp season, we would make our way to Pike Road to help out at work week. I’ve helped tile bathrooms, paint doors, but what I did most was clean and haul away trash. One year Zach was helping run a piece of conduit under the sidewalk for an electric line. The pipe was hung up under the concrete sidewalk. “Hold on, I think I can feel it.” Zach said to the man on the other side of the concrete and reached his hand down to see if he could pull the pipe through. At the same time the man on the other side of the sidewalk shoved the pipe. The pipe cut Zach’s finger pretty bad and it started spurting blood. He grabbed it and ran into the kitchen with the whole host of workers following him. After we washed the finger off it was still bleeding really bad and someone said, “You better take him to the emergency room.”

My Dad, said, “We don’t have any insurance.”

This reply was met with a smirk by the man who had shoved the pipe. When Bro. Mike Hartzell saw this expression, something came over him and he took Zach’s hand and said with authority, “Let’s pray.”

After everyone prayed, Zach pulled the wet paper towel away from his hand and we couldn’t even find the cut.

I heard some life changing sermons at that old campground. I used to buy all of the tapes at the end of the week with the money I had earned hauling hay. I still have a big stack of those tapes at home, although they are a little warbly from years of listening. There is one tape that has a reserved spot on my desk at home, “The Things God Measures” by Rev. Doug White. I can quote much of it. “The book of Ezekiel, chapter 40…God wants to know how big your altar is…” I remember that night like it was yesterday. I felt God calling me to preach in the altar call after Bro. White had measured out about a hundred yards of rope as an illustration of the line of flax. There were other memorable speakers from the various camps that I distinctly remember, J.T. Pugh, C.M. Becton, Paul Mooney, Mike Chance, and Wayne McClain. I remember being so tired from staying up all night that I fell asleep on the front row of the day session at Camp Meeting one year. I’m ashamed to say that this happened while Bro. Becton was preaching.

I also made lifelong friendships at camp. Back in the days before everyone had a cell phone and the internet was a luxury, we used to get a booklet with every camper’s name and address. It was a thrill to get a letter in the mail, especially if it was from a girl. I had my first crush at camp and we corresponded through the mail until the long distance phone rates went down. I hope that she could read my handwriting. It took a lot of courage to call knowing that her father could answer and I would have to ask to speak to her.

There was a distinct culture at camp and unless you experienced it, it might seem odd and a bit hard to understand. Sort of like someone trying to explain a real vacation to me. I wish the Pike Road Campgrounds story could go on and on, but sadly it must come to an end. In recent years, the Alabama District made the hard decision to sell the campgrounds for a myriad of reasons. This put a seal on my childhood. Sometimes, we adults would like to go back to being kids, but it’s not possible, we can only remember. I hold the memories that I made every June at camp very dear. Temporal things will not last, and even memories fade, at least for now I still have those tapes and pictures.