Doris McDaniel

She wore pearls and drove a Cadillac; a great big gold Cadillac.

Mrs. Doris McDaniel spoke with an old Southern accent. An accent not easily imitated even by Southerners; Hollywood always gets it wrong. She dropped her R’s which made her sound like 19th century southern aristocracy. She also wore pearls and drove a Cadillac; a great big gold Cadillac. This certainly encouraged my childhood idea that Mrs. McDaniel had descended from royal stock. I thought she was the richest woman in Shelby County. She may also have been the sweetest.

Already in her 70’s when I was a child, she still owned and ran an old store right in the middle of Vincent. Prime real estate which set the halfway mark for the Christmas Parades. I don’t know how long she had the store, it was just always there. Kind of like her: a fixture in the town. As long I could remember, she kept odd hours at the store. People knew the store was open if her Cadillac was parked out front. The store was the only place in Vincent where you could buy a set of snow skis. It was like a permanent indoor yard sale. I think she kept the store open just to get out of the house, and to see people. People always made her smile. I think people came in to see her too. They certainly weren’t looking for snow skis.

Mrs. McDaniel was Jared and Creed’s grandmother. They called her Granny Mac. She would watch them sometimes during the summer. Whenever we got a little rowdy, she would say things like, “Oh my! Boys, that’s not nice.” She had a way of sort gasping the “Oh my”, and stretching “Boys” out to have an extra syllable. Even so, I never saw her lose her composure: She was a lady.

We would hang out at her store sometimes; stopping in to say hello and to feel the air conditioning for a moment. It was usually a checkpoint before we went gallivanting down the railroad tracks. She was always happy to see us, or anyone else that came in. She treated everyone that came into her store the same way.

The last time I saw her I was an adult. “My, my, my! Look how you’ve grown.” She said energetically. I had never noticed how petite she was until I was grown.

I introduced my wife. “How are are you hon?” She reached in for a hug.

“She is beautiful Zane.” She had a way of throwing an extra syllable in my name too.

Mrs. Doris McDaniel passed away on January 11th, 2020 at the age of 95.

If you ever drive through the town of Vincent, Alabama, you’ll probably take the old parade route: Highway 231. You’ll know you’re in town once the speed limit drops to 35 miles per hour, but you really aren’t downtown until you drive under the railroad overpass. The Christmas Tree will be on your left and Florey St with all the municipal offices on your right. There is a building on the right with a big sign that reads Doris McDaniel. Just know that one of the sweetest ladies that ever lived used to run that old store.

If that sign isn’t still there, it ought to be.

My wife and I window shopping at Mrs. McDaniel’s store.

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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Swimming

I’d be in a bind before I had to go swimming in that snake pit, especially naked.

For the most part I usually go swimming in my clothes. At the family reunion on the river, I would run straight from the car and dive off the pier fully clothed. It might seem a little odd, but quite tame compared to my Dad’s philosophy.  He  would shake his head and say, “That’s crazy, swimming in their clothes like that Sonja.”

“They need to be modest Perry.” Mom would reply, she was big on being modest. “What do you want them to swim in then?”

“We always went swimming in the water.” Dad would say with a grin. It wasn’t a helpful suggestion, but it was the truth.

Dad grew up with a younger brother and slew of cousins. They were notorious for skinny dipping in Hurricane Creek, a creek behind my grandmother’s house. He took me back there once to show me. It was a glorified swamp. I’d be in a bind before I had to go swimming in that snake pit, especially naked. When you use the word “naked” in Genesis your mind wants to pronounce it “Nay-ked”. It makes the word seem like not a bad thing.  And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed Genesis 2:25. Anytime you read the word after man was kicked out of the garden, you have to pronounce it, “Neckid”, which lets you know that there is shame involved. And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. Genesis 3:10.  

There was still a moderate amount of shame involved in my Dad’s generation of nude bathers. I remember hearing a story of when the gang were all swimming in their “natural” way, when a family on a picnic discovered them in the creek. One of the cousins climbed out of the creek and began to put his clothes on not many yards from the people.

“What in the world are you doing?” They all cried to him.

“I ain’t going to let these people to see me naked.” He replied.

After a few instances like this, they had to search for a new swimming hole. 

Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. Proverbs 9:17

Even the Bible implies that there is a thrill in doing something that you’re not supposed to do. Dad would recount, “Whenever we saw a sign that said keep out, or do not climb, we interpreted that as, ‘Climb Please’.” It was in this manner that they happened upon the water tower. They climbed it and to their surprise, the latch at the top was unlocked.

“It was dark in there.” Dad used to say. “That first jump in always took a little courage because not only was it dark, you never knew what the water level was going to be.”

It worked great as a swimming hole until Dad, being a concerned citizen mentioned to Uncle Johnny, who worked on the water board, that the water level seemed unusually low in the water tower.

“How in the world do you know that?” Uncle Johnny asked, a bit surprised.

“We went swimming in there last week and the water level was fine. Yesterday the water was real low.”

“What are you boys doing swimming in the water tower? Y’all can’t do that!”

“It’s fine Uncle Johnny, they purify that water before it goes out.”

“Naw! That water goes straight to your momma’s sink. Y’all better net get in there again.”

The next time they tried to go swimming there was a lock on the lid. I guess nothing gold can stay. They had to go back to swimming in creeks, lakes, and rivers. This is where I’ve done most of my swimming too. I was always to chicken to finish climbing the water tower to see if the lid was open. Still, whenever I pass a water tower during the summer I always wonder if there is a gang of cousins in there skinny dipping. 

 

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Year-Round School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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