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.

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.

Mr. McGraw

Do you remember an influential teacher? What were they like? How did they influence you?

In my Senior year of High School I stayed in my Chemistry class long enough to realize that it was going to require more math skills than I cared to exercise, so I asked the guidance counselor to place me in a different science class. I ended up in Zoology, which was decidedly less academically strenuous. Furthermore, it was on the middle school side of the school. Vincent Middle/High School is in one building with two wings separated by a courtyard, which may not have made the class easier but it seemed like it did. We also had a new teacher, a recent college graduate. This was his first teaching job, and we were his only Senior class, the rest were seventh grade science class. I guess the administration just wanted to feed him to the lions. He had a rough go with those seventh graders, and we watched him grow more frazzled by the week. He only lasted about three weeks before he walked face first into the edge of partially opened door, which broke his glasses and cut his face so severely that he had to go immediately to the hospital and I never saw him again. The principal, Mr. Minnick, came in and finished the rest of the class teaching us about vernal equinox and summer solstice, and the seasons. Which I guess could be tied somehow remotely to zoology. Even so, he did a really good job and it was eye opening for a few of my classmates who had missed or forgotten our science teacher, Mr. Byrne, a former NASA employee, give a far superior explanation when we were in the seventh grade.

We went through a slew of substitute teachers. There was one particular guy that was very rude and liked to embarrass students in front of the class. I hope he got a job somewhere that didn’t have good air conditioning. Mr. Minnick, our principle, sat in a few more times because there must of been a shortage of substitute teachers.

Then one day we had substitute teacher that I recognized as a frequent shopper at Smith and Son’s Grocery where I had been gainfully employed the summer before, and as one of my Dad’s turnip green customers. He drove a mint green Cadillac and had gold rimmed glasses. This was Mr. McGraw, one of the first graduates of the newly integrated Vincent High School in early 70’s. He had come over from the segregated black school to join the football team with Harold Garrett, who had the misfortune of teaching my 8th grade sex education class. Anyway, apparently they had been a dynamic duo of quarterback and receiver, or at least been good enough for me to read about it in the newspaper thirty years later, and for the school to name the football stadium for Mr. Garrett.

That first day Mr. McGraw introduced himself as our permanent substitute for the rest of the year, informing us that our original rookie teacher had quit. We learned that Mr. McGraw was originally from Vincent, but didn’t make any boasts about football as I recall, and that he had recently retired from teaching in Ohio and moved back home to be with his mother.

Mr. McGraw was not in the least intimidated by the unruly seventh graders, having spent the past thirty years teaching High School in Toledo, Ohio. I believe that he also understood that for the most part, our senior Zoology class did not consist of overachievers and that we did not have very high expectations of him. Or rather, he didn’t have high expectations of us. 

I realized this after we spent a week studying ungulates and he wheeled in the TV from the library and we watched, “Mysteries of the Deep” a documentary about ocean life. We watched that film about five times that year. No one complained, we were all just ready to graduate.

The only lesson germane to Zoology that still stands out vividly from that class is when we learned about marsupials. “When I was kid, we caught a possum and dipped it in kerosene. Then set it on fire.” He offered this information in a matter of fact tone as a side note while he was teaching. It kind of took the class off guard. He followed it up by saying, “It took off through the field running.” He chuckled as his memory took him back to being a kid. It was not a chuckle of sadistic delight. It was a older man reflecting back on his childhood and chuckling at poor decisions. I don’t blame him though, there wasn’t much more to do in the rural Alabama in which I had grown up. 

We probably learned more about life and being an adult from Mr. McGraw than we did about Zoology. He was no nonsense, without being rude. He lacked that thin sheen of professionalism that greases many transactions in the corporate world. He was the same person in the classroom that he in the grocery store. That was probably more valuable than anything we could have learned in a cop out course. 

It’s often amazing how strange events can bring you into proximity to people that make an impression on you. After all these years I can still remember minute details about Mr. McGraw. The gold ring, and gold chain around his neck. The torn rotator cuff that was giving him trouble. The inflexion of his voice. How he pronounced certain words. But I’ve forgotten our original teacher’s name.

 

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Bicycles

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

You probably remember when you first learned to ride your bike. Maybe your Dad had been running behind you, holding on to the banana seat, and you looked back to see that he was standing twenty feet back with his hands on his hips grinning at you. You panic and then crash. This is repeated until you don’t crash, and that’s how a lot of people learn to ride their bike. Others never started out with training wheels, and were told to just go ride it. My Uncle Tony taught me to ride without training wheels at Gram’s house. It was a faded blue bike with gummy white rubber grips on the handle bars that left a tacky feeling on your hands. He was running behind me as I peddled, until he wasn’t, and I kept right on going. I’ve only met a couple adults who never learned to ride a bicycle. It’s difficult to imagine childhood without bicycles.

It seems like I wore out and outgrew bikes like I outgrew shoes. It probably didn’t help that we left our bikes laying in the yard to get rained on. My Dad would just shake his head when he saw this. When you got a brand new bicycle for Christmas it was easy to haul it up onto the porch and use the kickstand, but the new wore off pretty quickly after one good winter mud puddle. It never occurred to me to clean my bikes. The only maintenance I ever thought about was air in the tires and oil on the chain. Dad would catch the spent motor oil in an old kitchen pot with only one handle whenever we changed the oil in the family vehicles. After crawling out from underneath the truck or van, he would tell us to fetch our bikes. He flipped the bikes over and we would work the pedals as he poured the gritty black oil over the moving chain. You could feel the whole drive train working more smoothly as the lubrication was applied. This usually made a glorious oily mess as much of the oil splattered all over the rest of the bike. We didn’t mind though.

I had a bicycle with cement tires. It was already old when I got it as it refused to be worn out. Not many people I’ve talked to have heard of cement tires. There is a reason cement tires never caught on. Imagine riding on a pothole riddled road in a car without shocks at full speed. That almost gives you the same feeling as riding that bike.

Not content with standard issue, every boy in our neighborhood felt the need to modify his bicycle. The junkyard of worn out bikes at each house usually supplied us with adequate parts. Sometimes, probably most times, the modification did not make the bike any easier to ride or better. It was the feeling of seeing an idea come to life that gave us satisfaction. Adam Bryant put a go cart steering wheel on his BMX style bike. It was the hardest thing in the world to steer. Zach and I put bicycle tires on a scooter. It went a lot faster, but the bigger tires raised the platform to an uncomfortable height for anyone who actually wanted to reach down with a foot to scoot. Jared and Creed put roller blade wheels on a pair of two-by-four studs and pulled them behind their bikes. I’m not sure why, and when I talked to Creed the other day, he still wasn’t sure why. But they did it, and when they rolled up into our yard each with a makeshift trailer rattling behind them, their face shown with pride because of their ingenuity, and they wanted to share their success with us.

I will say that I do not recommend taking a bicycle on the railroad tracks.

We rode bikes everyday until one of us got a car, and our bikes sat out in the rain and rusted until one day a man that Dad knew came and picked them up for scrap metal. We didn’t realize it at the time but as I watched him drive away a chapter closed in my life.

To combat the sedentary nature of my desk job, I recently purchased a proper adult bicycle. I’ve ridden 225 miles since I started three months ago. The changing temperatures that you feel as you ride through the shade and the hollows of Alabama takes me back to being a child on a bicycle. Having a wreck on a bike as an adult however, is a completely different experience.

I’ve tried sporadically over the last year to teach Wesley how to ride his bicycle without training wheels. At times I’ve felt like a failure as a Dad because I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to devote to this task. Other times I felt like he almost had it, but he stopped short. A few days ago while I was at work, he got on his old smaller bike, and told his mom, “I’m going to practice riding my bike without training wheels.” Without any help on that particular day, he figured out how to ride his bicycle.

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Things That Matter

Isn’t it funny that baby animals learn so much faster than we do? A baby deer will be up and on it’s feet within a couple of ours of being born, but it could take a child more than a year to learn to walk. It is a curious thing. It’s not that humans are unintelligent. More than likely you are reading this on a handheld device with more computing power than the technology NASA used to put men on the moon. How can we be so intelligent, yet so vulnerable? Such were the musings of my dear friend. Admittedly, I’ve never heard a rhetorical question that I didn’t think needed answering, but there is an answer to this existential pondering.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Genesis 1:27

There were a lot things created in the first chapter of Genesis. No, all things were created in the first chapter of Genesis, but only mankind was made in the image of God. Before there was government, before there was a church, there was a family. God has a high view of the family. Nathaniel Wilson said that, “God, the almighty, could have called himself anything, but he chose to call himself Father.” With the knowledge that as a Father I am responsible for teaching my children everything, there also comes a sobering weight of responsibility.

At my baby dedication, my pastor and grandfather, Brant Douglas Reynolds, summed up the complex role of parenthood, admonishing my parents to, “Teach him to brush his teeth, but teach him have clean speech. Teach him to comb his hair, but teach him to keep his mind pure.” As a parent, I’m responsible for feeding my children natural food, but also food for their minds. I’m to help them learn to walk, but also to show them how to conduct themselves in society.

In the information age, we have to be selective about what we are going to teach our children. Not only because there is false information, but because vast amount of information available, it isn’t possible to learn everything that can be learned. As parents we are the curators of the ideas and skills that we want to instill in them.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

I would do my children a grave disservice if I trained them up to do something in their childhood and then expect them to do something completely different when they become adults. What a tragedy it would be to learn that what seemed all important in your childhood was now completely irrelevant in adulthood. As sad as that is, it’s far worse to learn that what you did in your life had no weight in eternity. I want to concern myself with matters of eternal significance. I want to teach my children about the eternal kingdom of God.

In my journal, I often write my clearly defined beliefs on things. I do this in order to practice articulating ideas. But I also have a fanciful idea that my children will pass the journal down and it may come into the hands of a relative that I have not met. My prayer is that they will read these journal entries and the ideas and beliefs will not be foreign to them.

I have compiled a short list of things that matter that I feel a grave responsibility to teach my children, and am not willing to leave to chance. I want teach my children to have good manners. I want them to know how to treat people with respect. I want to show my children how to be a good father, and a good husband. I want my children to be good citizens. These are all honorable aspirations, but there are a few things that are even more important than these.

The Word of God is Infallible

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: II Timothy 3:16

As much as I would love to just give truth to people, especially my children, they must make that investment themselves.

Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding. Proverbs 23:23

There is Only One God

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine hear, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thing hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9

It’s easy to put this at the top of the list, because God makes it a priority throughout the Bible.

Jesus Christ is God Manifested in Flesh

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. Colossians 2:8-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, ) full of grace and truth. John 1:14

To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us word of reconciliation. II Corinthians 5:19

You Must Be Born Again

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. John 3:3

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John 3:5

Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about baptism. I was once at a funeral where the officiating minister quoted this scripture with the addendum that ,”being born of the water was natural child birth.” I instinctively cried out, “No!” If I don’t teach my children that baptism is important, someone else is going to tell them that it isn’t necessary.

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. Mark 16:16

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4

Baptism fulfills the covenant of circumcision.

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also yea are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:11-12

Above all, I want my children to be saved. At the birthday of the church, the Apostle Peter answered the direct question about salvation: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Acts 2:38-39

All of these things matter to me. I’ve got to be responsible for what happens in my home.

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15

Vanity

Mr. Lowe was the sole music teacher at my elementary school. I think he may have been involved with the music at his local church, but as I did not attend his local church this claim cannot be substantiated. I can tell you with certainty that he was bald. He kept what straight brown hair that remained on the sides and back of his hair neatly combed. I often thought that his hair had a distinct rounded puff like quality to it. I’m told he rode a motorcycle, but again, I never saw him on a motorcycle, or any other car for that matter, but I can imagine very easily that he did ride a motorcycle. He had a very resonant baritone voice and always taught setting down, which in later years I learned is not the best way to sing.

Mr. Lowe’s music class was held in a single wide trailer on the western side of the school. You had to walk outside, in a single file line with your mouth closed while you held your thumb behind your back, in order to reach the classroom. By the time all of us had filed into the trailer, the cool air had rushed out of the room, and we sat for the next hour or so listening to the window unit air conditioner work overtime as Mr. Lowe rambled about cows eating grass and good boys finding.

Music was taught in an odd fashion in elementary school. All of us, more or less, showed up on our first day at Kindergarten with at least good conversational English. For the next five years we were taught vocabulary, grammar, and composition. But with music, we were thrust almost immediately into music theory before we had any experience on a musical instrument. If we excelled in theory, we might then be encouraged to take up an instrument.

I enjoyed music time. Mr. Lowe introduced us to all of the least practical instruments for playing the type of music that I was exposed to at home and at church. He showed us maracas, sand blocks, guiros, and my personal favorite, the bells. I vaguely remember a piano, but no guitars. He would sometimes let us “play” these instruments. I don’t think any of us were very proficient at these odd instruments.

Mr. Lowe taught us the Peanut Butter Song.

First you take the peanuts and you dig ’em

You dig’em dig’em dig’em

Pea-nuuut, pea-nut butter, and jelly…

Mr. Lowe introduced us to Jerry Lewis in the movie Cinderfella. Before we started the movie, Mr. Lowe to pains to make it very clear that Jerry Lewis was not a sissy. Being a sissy was about the worst thing that anyone could call you. Mr. Lowe’s preliminary speech didn’t convince me.

Mr. Lowe tried his best to teach us about sharps and flats, rhythm, melody and harmony, but like many of my teachers, he spent far too much of his time trying to get the attention of children who’s only desire was to do anything but learn.

In about the fourth or fifth grade, Mrs. McManus sat our class down for a speech before we were to go to music class. We all prepared for another, “Y’all better learn how to act or we’re putting you on silent lunch” orations. What followed caught us off guard.

“Students.” Mrs. McManus began in a grave manner.

“Today when you go to music class, Mr. Lowe is going to look different. He’ll have hair.”

She paused for a moment to see what our reaction would be. We were so taken off guard that not a word was spoken. She took advantage of the silence and proceeded.

“Mr. Lowe has decided to wear a toupee.” Here she went into detail about what a toupee was, our french not being what it should be. After she was convinced that we had been thoroughly educated on what a toupee was, how it staid on, why you would want to wear one, and what it was made of, she made it very clear that we were not to “Stare, ask questions, or even acknowledge that anything was different about Mr. Lowe.” Now this is a lot to ask a group of rowdy fourth and fifth graders, but aside from one or two well meaning compliments, we acquiesced to this strange demand from our pedagogue.

This absurd experience made a bigger impact on me than all of the musical knowledge that Mr. Lowe tried to impart. We had seen Mr. Lowe every week for five years and now he was going to be radically different and we weren’t allowed to talk about it. That’s the way with vanity: we spend a lot of effort trying be something that we’re not and hope that it comes off as normal.

Kindergarten

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten.

I cried when my mamma left me at school on my first day of kindergarten. “Look Zane, there’s a little boy with red hair.” She tried to comfort me as she pointed to Scottie, a boy with flaming red hair and a rat tail. Eventually I quieted down and took my seat directly across from Corey, a boy with a flat top haircut and perpetual drool on his chin. Miss Whitehead, our teacher, must have told him to wipe his chin at least six times a day for the rest of the school year, because I can still hear the frustration in her voice. Once all of the little children settled down and stopped sniffling a boy named Blake threw a bottle of glue across the room. As if on queue, the entire class stopped what they were doing and said, “Ooooohh”. This was the standard instinctual reaction for anything out of the ordinary for the next six or so years.

Miss Whitehead was a petite lady and was still in the early years of her teaching career. She had one of those bob haircuts that we popular in the early nineties, and she wore stirrup pants. It also seems like she wore a lot of horizontal striped shirts. I’m sure she was pretty trendy at the time. She must have gotten married and moved away because I only remember her being there for the first year of Elementary School. I did not move away, and neither did most of my classmates, Jordan, Ashleigh, Amanda, Stephanie, T.J., Maurice, Bexter, and several others. We would make memories together for the until we graduated thirteen years later.

I look back in regret at how much I hated nap time. I’m fairly certain that I never went to sleep anyway, although I did enjoy faking going to sleep so that the child assigned to wake everyone up would have to shake me. There was one kid that went sound asleep everyday and always woke up slightly dazed and grumpy. I might have been Corey, the drooler. I do recall Miss Whitehead calling me out for not being quiet during nap time. I had gotten some cowboy action figures, which Mom wouldn’t let me bring to school, but I had cut the trading cards out of the back of the cardboard packaging and I kept them in my pocket. Miss Whitehead caught me red handed playing with my cards instead of napping. I was upset with her for confiscating them, but I eventually forgave her.

We were mesmerized by the water fountain. Each of us waited out turn to get a drink of the cold water, all ignoring the exasperated pleas of Miss Whitehead to “Keep your mouth off of the water fountain!” Looking back, I think we all thought that she was talking to everyone else. I must admit that most of the water fountains I’ve experienced look ergonomically designed for your mouth. It wasn’t until she yanked my head off of the spout that I realized that I had been putting my mouth on the water fountain for as long as I had been drinking at water fountains. I try to avoid water fountains in general know that I’m an adult.

You learn a lot about change in kindergarten. About midway through my kindergarten year, we switched classrooms. We were all led en mass down to the new classroom so we wouldn’t get lost when the move finally happened. For whatever reason, Mom was late dropping me off to school on the day that we finally moved. I went straight to the old classroom only to find the door locked and the lights out. I wandered back to the front of the school to try to find the new classroom, but I couldn’t remember which door. I peered through the door windows of each classroom on the new hall, but didn’t see any familiar faces. I made the trip back to the old classroom before looking into another strange new room. Eventually someone from the office found me and took me to my new classroom.

Story time was my favorite part of kindergarten. We would all gather around Miss Whitehead’s chair and sit “Indian Style” on the floor. This was back when we sat Indian Style, today they call it criss-cross-apple-sauce, which confuses the kids. Anyway, we would sit there as Miss Whitehead would read to us from a book, holding it open so we could see the pictures, the most important part. It was during one of these sessions that Keisha, a mouth breather, stood up with he skirt dripping. It’s one thing to have an accident, but another to have an accident in public. “Why didn’t you tell me you had to go?” Miss Whitehead said with a tender voice although she was visibly frustrated. Keisha just stood there and shrugged, breathing heavily. The entire class remained completely silent and stared open mouthed at Keisha, each one of us grateful that we had not been the one to have an accident. There is nothing quite as intimidating as the kindergarten stare. We were old enough to know what was going on, and pure enough to hold anyone’s gaze unflinching. In many ways it was worse than the entire class saying in chorus, “Ooooohhh!”

 

 

 

Ghost Stories

“The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.”

I’ve heard a good many ghost stories in my life, some of which kept me up all night. If you’re interested I’ll give you the tried and true formula for telling the perfect ghost story. This works 100% of the time, if you’re in the third grade. Once you know the formula, you can take turns making up ghost stories on the spot with your friends the next time you have someone “spending the night” with you. If you’re a grown up it’s probably too late since you lost most of your imagination somewhere before you started caring about the opposite sex and after you realized that using deodorant and brushing your teeth might not just be for the weekends.

Rule number one for telling a good ghost story is establishing when the story happened. You don’t want your audience to be so worried about when the story might have taken place that they miss major plot developments.  For a solid opening, I like to use “Once upon a time.” After vaguely establishing the time, it’s good to pause for a dramatic effect before coming in more intensely with where the story might have happened. I usually go for “In the deep dark woods.” I’m getting scared just writing this right now. Now that we’ve created the perfect spooky setting your audience should be sufficiently hooked and want to hear the rest of your story, now it’s time to real them in with the details. For our next line we need to establish who or what the story is about. A ghost story is only as good as it’s villain. You might try a line like “There lived a man.” You might even throw an adjective in for good measure, “There lived an old man.” The more time you spend on describing the villain the better your villain will be, but don’t spend too time with details, you want to make them wonder. We’ll give him long bushy eyebrows, a lazy eye and bad leg that causes him to limp. Now would be a good time to practice your onomatopoeia as you describe the sound made when he walked across the dirty floor in his decaying cabin. For extra credit you can describe how he received the bad leg, “In a gunfight”, or “on the railroad”, are always good choices if you get stumped. Our next step requires action, what did the old man do? Did he collect toenails, kidnap dogs and cut off their ears, or just knock on doors and run away? Whatever he did, it needs to be something that relates to all of your audience. We’ll go with “Turned off the lights whenever you went to the bathroom.” Now you can wrap up your story with, “And if you’ve ever been in the bathroom and the lights go out, you’ll know it was the old man!” Maybe throw in a little scream at the end for good measure. It helps if later during the sleepover you can cut off the lights while someone is going to the restroom.

It seems humorous writing about it as an adult, but I remember being genuinely scared of improvised ghost stories, even if I was the one telling them. It’s good to know when to stop telling ghost stories and go to bed so you won’t be too scared to sleep. My rule of thumb is to stop whenever I start getting scared at my own story telling. The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.

I remember being quite upset by a ghost story on the 5th grade field trip to a camp in North Alabama. The camp counselor told us that the cabins we were sleeping in were built on Indian Burial mounds that had to be excavated before they were able to start building the campgrounds. During this excavation they found a skeleton that was missing a hand. No one knows for sure, but they think that this hand was lost during initial excavation when they discovered the burial mounds. The counselor told us that every once in a while they saw a skeleton hand, supposedly searching for the missing body. Every time that they had seen the hand they had also heard the Chickasaw Death Whisper. The counselor had been gradually lowering his voice and we were on the edge of our seat with anticipation. He said, “This is how the Chickasaw Death Whisper goes,” and after a slight pause he yelled at the top of his lungs.

A little unconventional, I know, because he deviated from the usual ghost story formula, but I was so scared that night that I eventually got in the bunk with my friend and I didn’t care what anybody said. Perhaps my imagination was a little over active from not having a television in our home. Many of the other students laughed harder than they had screamed once they got over their initial fright. Feel free to tell this one some place I’ve never been.

I remember telling ghost stories with our neighbors, Jared and Creed numerous times. Jared and Creed had a popup camper that they would take on vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. I know they went to the Great Smoky Mountains because while they were gone I fed their Blue Tick hounds and I still have a pack of Great Smoky Mountain playing cards that Jared brought back as a thank you gesture. I’m sure Mr. McDaniel appreciated the break from his shift work for Alabama Power at the Logan Martin Dam. There was a leak in the dam and his job was to pump concrete into the hole. He’d been pumping concrete for about 30 years. Whenever they got ready to go on vacation, they would air out the popup camper in the basement and this was the perfect place to tell ghost stories. We all four piled into the camper and began the time honored swapping of improvised ghost stories. Zach told one and we all laughed, he was always to jolly of a story teller to be all that scary. Creed told one and it must have been pretty scary, because Jared moved to the back of the camper where Creed and Zach were, leaving me in the front. Now it was Jared’s turn to tell a story. I think he was still doing character development on his villain when I decided that it would be a little safer on the other side of the camper with the other three boys. As I crossed over to the other side the trailer tipped swiftly backwards and the tongue banged against the ceiling of the basement right beneath the living room where Mr. McDaniel was trying to catch up on his sleep in the recliner. Mr. McDaniel was jarred awake by the commotion in the basement and stormed downstairs. We were more afraid of Mr. McDaniel than any ghost story villain our imaginations could drum up, mainly because Mr. McDaniel was real, and at the moment, he was “real mad”. He looked at each of us in turn as we were piling out of the camper, then he said to Zach and Me, “Boys, it might be a good time for y’all to go on home.” We quickly obliged him. I hope his vacation brought his blood pressure down.

In the rural community that I grew up in legends were still very much alive. These legends spawned grown up ghost stories that were terrifying to children. What’s even scarier than that is that many adults still whole heartedly believed that they were true. One example that comes to mind was the legend of The White Thang. I’m sure I should spell it “Thing”, but that isn’t how I heard it spoken. The White Thang was a fantastic white creature that lived on the mountain and terrorized the community. Sort of. No one ever fully saw the White Thang, they just described it as a flash of white. What people were able to describe in detail was the ear splitting noise that the creature made. Some said is sounded like a woman screaming, or a panther. It was taken so seriously by the community that I remember it making the newspaper at least three times in my life. There isn’t much to tell, maybe that’s why it was so widely believed and what makes it so scary, the fear of the unknown. All of the stories about the White Thang were pretty similar. Someone was on the mountain hunting and they heard a scream like a woman and saw a flash of white, or someone was fetching wood late at night and heard a wild screech and saw a flash of white. It may have been an albino panther or mountain lion. There was never enough moon light for anyone to get a good glimpse of the creature. More likely there was too much moonshine. Whatever it was, many people of Sterrett, Alabama swore up and down that it was real and they had heard it and seen it, or at least a credible relative you had seen it. The White Thang might be more believable than some people’s credible relatives.

I haven’t told or heard a good ghost story since the last time I went camping as a teenager. I think I finally realized that I don’t like being frightened. These days I shy away from ghost stories in general because real life is scary enough.

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