The Google Reviews I Haven’t Left

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

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

Hamburger Heaven, my favorite restaurant.

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

Three Star Grocery Store

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

Two Star Home Improvement

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

Two Star Home Cooking Restaurant

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

Four Star Italian Restaurant

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

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

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

Tater-Tot Poisoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Practical Jokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Merry Christmas, and Thanks

92670027From my family to yours, Merry Christmas and thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog, it means a lot to me. In a world where we are conditioned to digest 140 character thoughts, and fifteen second videos, you have carved out time to read 1500 word ramblings of my childhood. If anything I’ve written has been able to make you laugh, or has brought back your own fond memories, then I count that as success. Perhaps you’ve cried, please don’t hold that against me, I’m a bit sentimental myself at times. Thank you for sharing Mostly From Memory with your friends and family.

Thanks to my Dad, Perry Wells, who has always been my biggest salesman. If you’re reading this because he told you about it, thanks for taking his advice. I hope I’ve lived up to the hype.

Earlier this year, I decided to withdraw myself from FaceBook because I felt that I wasn’t using my time as wisely as I could. And after I disabled my account, I realized just how much time I had been wasting there. About the same week that I unplugged, I had bizarre experience at work that was too in depth to tell orally,  and too fantastic to merely gloss over, so I decided to type a lengthy email in the form of a story and send it to my wife and siblings. I was surprised to receive such a positive response about my story, so I decided to write Hauling Hay and share it with a few more people, and got an even better response. After a few more similar stories and encouragement, I decided that a blog was the best platform for sharing these stories with anyone that cared to read them. I linked the blog to Twitter, which means it shares the link to every new post I make.  In a happy accident, I found out that my Twitter account is still linked to FaceBook, so when I post on here it automatically posts on Twitter and FaceBook. I said all of that to say, leaving FaceBook inspired this blog, and I don’t think I can bring myself to reconnect in that platform. So if you’ve posted kind things, or mean things for that matter, on FaceBook and been frustrated at my lack of response, it’s not because I am being aloof, I just didn’t see your comment. However, I do see anything that you post on WordPress.

As a Christmas gift to you, I would like to share the bizarre situation that I endured at work, and what became my first story. This is an account of a real life experience, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

                                                   The Endorsement Page
                                                           By Zane Wells
It was in early August when Michael asked me out of the blue, “Did he call?”
Perhaps I was just coming back to work from a day off, because Michael looked surprised when I looked up nonchalantly and asked, “Who is he?”
“Kwa.”
I searched my memory, surely I would have remembered a name like that. “No. What would he want?”
“He wants to rent a gym, tell him that he must have the insurance before he can make a reservation.”
“Ok sounds, good.”
 
It seemed that Kwa was a gentleman who wanted to host a basketball tournament in one of the county gymnasiums, a sure fire way to not make any money, mainly due to the rigid and costly insurance requirements in place to keep groups like his from destroying the facility. Apparently, Kwa was having a little trouble getting his insurance in order to make such a reservation, a telltale sign of someone trying to cut a corner.
 
Later that week I started noticing a strange name on the caller ID, Kwabena. The first time or two I think Sue, my coworker, must have answered the phone, because by the time I got talked to him, he was already frustrated from calling to no avail. The conversations were pretty cyclical, Kwa would call and ask for Michael, who would usually not be in the office, and I would send him to Michael’s phone. Kwa would call back without leaving a message for Michael, I would pick up the phone, he would ask about the status of his insurance endorsement, I would tell him that we haven’t gotten anything. He would then ask to talk to Sandra who verifies all insurance forms, Sandra would tell him that we have your insurance, but no endorsement.
 
This went on until the day before his reservation. By that time, Sue and I cringed whenever we saw his name on caller ID, or even worse, when he came in person. The details are a little fuzzy but eventually he did get his certificate of insurance and endorsement-the day before his event if I recall correctly-so he was able to actually make his reservation. He paid for it with cash out of his shoe.
 
We thought that was all behind us and this was a one-time event. We were wrong.
 
Only about a week after his first reservation in late August, Kwa came in to make a reservation for another date. I double checked and his insurance was still good, but his endorsement had expired, it being only good for the first reservation date . So the cycle began again. He would call, I would transfer, they would not answer, he would not leave a message, he would call…The only thing that could break the cycle was for him to bring in the endorsement page, and he was having a real hard time doing that.
 
After this went on for about three weeks, he came in on one of his routine checkups on a nonexistent insurance endorsement. As we were finishing up the cycle-I can’t remember if it was “He’s not here”, or “I’m sorry, we haven’t received anything”- he casually chanced to ask if the date was still good for his reservation. My heart sank as I realized that he was going to have to stay at my desk until the elevator came back around, our elevator being a bit stuffy and somewhat less than immediate. I quickly got over this shock and checked the date and astonishingly someone had booked the gym for the date that he wanted. He let out a dismal sigh and set down on the park bench that sits at a 45 degree angle beside and behind my desk.
 
I can honestly say that this isn’t the first time that a grown man has cried in my office, but that’s another story.
“I’ve been promoting this for month.” He mourned. “I thought we had it reserved.”
Kwa could not understand that he only had a reservation if he paid for it, and he could only pay for it if he had the endorsement page. I quickly rang Michael to come talk to Kwa.
 
I was expecting the cycle to begin again, but Michael said, “I tell you what, we have another gym, and I’ll let you book it today, without the insurance, and we’ll refund you if you don’t have the endorsement by the reservation date.”
“If you pay with cash, we’ll have to refund you from finance, which might take a month.” I chimed in, remembering the sweaty shoe bills and hoping he would not pay with cash again.
“I don’t have the money on me, but I can go get it.” Said Kwa.
 
We all agreed that it was a very good deal. Kwa finally got on the elevator and left. Michael looked at me and said, “He’s not coming back today.”
And he didn’t.
 
He did however come nearly every other day for the two weeks leading up to his reservation.
“I’m just checking on the status of my endorsement.”
“I haven’t gotten anything.”
I don’t know why it never occurred to him that he was badgering the wrong institution, he should have been calling the insurance company. Perhaps he did. God help them.
 
On a Friday, the day before his reservation we had still not received his endorsement. The first time Kwa came in that day, I was able to evade him as I opened the janitor’s closet for Terry who had just broken a bowl in the kitchen. Kwa came in and went through the cycle with Sue. At this point we were still in hopes of the mythical endorsement page, but had decided against letting him reserve the gym without it, as the reservation was the next day.
 
I’m not sure how the conservation went, but when I got back Kwa was gone.
 
Michael gave us clear instructions as he left to work off site for the rest of the day. “Kwa’s insurance isn’t right, I can’t staff anybody for tomorrow, do not make any reservation for him. The deal is off.”
 
I prayed quietly that I would be on lunch break whenever Kwa came in to check on his reservation and endorsement again. God answered my prayer and I noticed that Sandra was at my desk talking to Kwa whenever I began to make my way back from down the hall where I take my lunch break.
“…And we won’t be able to staff it at this point even if the endorsement came in right now.” I heard Sandra say as I ducked into the bathroom to hopefully avoid contact.
 
To my shock he was still sitting on the park bench whenever I came back to work from loitering longer than usual in the restroom.
 
Kwa sat there for ten minutes. I busied myself with answering the phone. Kwa sat there for twenty minutes. I replied to all the emails in my unfinished box. Kwa sat there for twenty five minutes, looking at his phone and occasionally receiving a text message. I got up and went to the copy room to fill the copier with paper. While I was up,  I decided to scan some documents into our database. I finished in about fifteen minutes. When I came back to my desk, Kwa was still sitting there on the park bench.
 
“Is there someone else I can talk to? Maybe Michael’s manager?” Kwa asked, with a frown on his face.
“Sure I’ll go get Sandra.”
“I’ve already talked to her too.”
“Well Jeremy is in a meeting right now, he’s the Director. He’s due to be out of the meeting at 3:30.”
“I guess I’ll be back at 3:30 then.” Kwan retorted triumphantly and whirled around to punch the elevator button.
He was back at 3:00. I was on the phone when he walked in, so he went ahead and flopped down on the park bench. We didn’t say much once I got off the phone.
 
As we were waiting, Marv, the curmudgeonly Superintendent of Parks, came down the hall and asked Kwa if there was anything we could do for him.
“I’ve got a situation with my insurance. He sent it to y’all and now y’all are saying you don’t have it.” Kwa said vaguely.
Marv who was already aware of the Kwa’s position and had only asked to dig a little, replied. “We can’t do a reservation without the endorsement page, and we can’t staff an event on such short notice.”
Kwan said ok, knowing he still had Jeremy as a trump card, and Marv sidled back to his office no doubt giggling inside.
 
Kwa looked over to me with an angry frown and said. “What does he mean staff? We didn’t have staff last time.”
“If you had a reservation with us, then our staff were there.” I said, with reservation.
“No they wasn’t. I didn’t hire any staff, I had my own referees.” He said in confusion.
“The facility staff was there to let you in the building and to clean up.”
“Then where are all the staff for tomorrow?” he demanded angrily.
“They’re at other facilities tomorrow.” I said.
“Oh.” Kwan pondered for a moment. “If I had had the endorsement page this morning could I have had the tournament?”
“Possibly.” I said,
“I don’t understand why I could done it this morning, and not now.”
“Normally we only take reservations five business days in advance. Michael was just really trying to help you out by waiting till the day before, but we never got your endorsement page.”
“I sent it!” Kwa tried to start the cycle again as I was answering the phone. We didn’t pick the conversation back up after I finished the call. Thankfully.
 
After a quarter of an hour of awkward waiting, the meeting dismissed and the board members poured loudly down the hall. Since I was on the phone, Sue got up to go brief Jeremy of crisis. I assured Kwa that she would bring Jeremy out soon. He very hopefully said thank you.
 
After about ten more tense minutes of waiting, Jeremy walked slowly down the hall, jingling his keys in his pocket. The entire time that Kwa was sitting on the bench, he had been busying himself with his noisy cellphone, sending texts and leaving voice messages for what seemed to be the shadiest insurance company this side of Wall Street. When Jason arrived at my desk, Kwa had just placed a call and asked for Melanie, he quickly hung up and stood up to meet Jeremy.
 
“Glad to meet you, I’m Jeremy.” Jeremy said as he extended his hand.
“Kwabena.”  Kwa said.
“Cabana?”
“Kwa-Bena.” with more emphasis added.
“Cavana! What can we do for you?”
“Well we have a situation with my insurance. It’s exact same insurance that I sent for the last time I did this, and they sent the endorsement page, but y’all don’t have it.” Kwa was a bit hard to follow.
“What is your event?”
“A basketball tournament.”
“For kids or adults?”
“Adults.”
“So we don’t have your endorsement page, and we’re bound by that. And at this point we don’t have staff for an event tomorrow.”
Kwa sat down and elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry. I wish we could…” Jeremy said consolingly as he fumbled with his keys.
“Man I’ve been promoting this thing for a month.” Kwa moaned. “I’ve got referees coming from Ohio, a team from Pennsylvania, teams from out of state.”
“I wish I had better news to give you.” Jeremy said.
 
After standing for a moment, shifting his weight from heels to toes, Jeremy walked back down the hall to his office. Kwa didn’t move. I could tell that this was a person who was now completely without hope, totally broken. He was in the depths of despair and had finally given up on trying to move, much less having a tournament. He sat there for ten minutes. Not much to do when you don’t have any hope left. He had finally realized that there would be no tournament on Saturday.  
At last he looked over at me and said. “Can I bring the endorsement page Monday?”

 

 

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Bad Influence

“I better not catch you playing with them boys across the railroad tracks, they’ll be a bad influence on you.”

“I better not catch you playing with them boys across the railroad tracks, they’ll be a bad influence on you.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard my mother say this. Not that I ever did play with the boys across the street, we mainly just hurled rocks and insults at each other. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have been too bad of an influence on me though, I could have whooped them all if it ever came to that. I was always able to identify bad influence after I got a whipping for being influenced. It’s amazing how clear your thinking is after the rod of instruction has driven foolishness far from you.

John Wayne was a bad influence on me. I got a whipping one time for repeating a few choice words that I’d heard The Duke holler at some outlaws right before he rode out into the open prairie with the reins in his teeth and rifles in each hand, to blast them away. For whatever reason, my brother was staying after school in the fourth grade to work on some project. While Mom and his teacher were conversing, I went outside with Zach and one of his friends. Perhaps I was trying to show the friend how tough I was, perhaps he was picking on me, I can’t say for sure, but I called him a dirty name, or rather I called his mother a dirty name, and he told on me.

“Zane Daniel Wells!” My mother said, then she bit her tongue. I knew she was mad cause she always bites her tongue when she gets mad. It’s a wonder she didn’t bite it off  while raising my sister. I also knew it was serious because she used my middle name.

“Where did you learn that phrase?”

“John Wayne.”  How could my childhood hero let me down like this?

Mom was not happy. If I’d have known that I wasn’t going to get to watch any more westerns at my grandmother’s house for a while I’d have said that Zach taught me that phrase.  Mom wouldn’t spank me at school, she waited till we got to my grandmother’s house.

The influence of determined parents and a belt or switch was greater than any bad influence I was exposed to as a child, but I could never get away from the bad influence of my brother Zach, who is four years older than me. We used to make bows and arrows out of green saplings and fishing line. They were crude, but good enough for Robin Hood and his merry men. One day Zach decided that we ought to play William Tell, inside. It had to have been raining, or else we’d have been outside. Rain was the only thing that would have kept us inside since this was before we got the air conditioner. As I recall, we decided that the living room was the best place to play William Tell.

“Go stand over there across the room.” Zach ordered me. He of course, got to be William Tell. If I would have known the story of William Tell, I would not have complied so easily, but this is a story about bad influence. Bad influence sounds like fun until you’re already in too deep. I stood there with my big glasses, watching Zach as he drew back his bow.

“Be still.” Zach said closing one eye. I was starting to realize that this might be bad influence.

Thwang! The greenstick arrow flew across the living room, right into my lip. I remember being so young that I couldn’t properly express to Mom what happened, and I don’t think that Zach got a spanking, but I got a band aid that did not help the cut on my gums.

It was probably hard to be an active little boy who loved the great outdoors and have a much younger half blind brother as your only playmate. Not only was Zach four years older, but he was always big and strong for his age. This didn’t stop him from expecting me to play up to his level no matter what sport he forced upon me. He taught me a lot about sports. At football I learned to run fast or get tackled, but it was a long time before I could outrun Zach. What I learned about all the sports was, play until you get hurt and then Zach will leave you alone. We used to box at my grandmother’s house with my cousins boxing gear. Zach would knock me down over and over until I got a bloody nose. I never knocked him down, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try.

Another thing I couldn’t do no matter how hard I tried was catch the ball. It didn’t matter if it was football, baseball, or basketball, I couldn’t do it. In retrospect, I probably just couldn’t see.  “Don’t be afraid of the ball!” They would say. Who isn’t afraid of an unseen fastball? I would close my eyes, look away and hope for the best. Since I was such a terrible catch, most of the time Zach would throw the baseball on the roof and catch it as it rolled off. In one of the rare events that I played catch with him, Zach knocked me out with a baseball to the forehead. I laid there for a second wondering if I was still alive. When I got up I wobbled around and stumbled into the kitchen where Mom discovered the knot on my forehead the size of a new potato. Zach went outside and started throwing the ball up on the roof. I gave up sports then, I don’t even follow football.

After we realized that bad influence would be met with swift and painful discipline from our parents, we learned to identify it from afar and avoid. Sometime in my childhood a shift happened, and we went from being influenced to being influences. I am sad to say that we weren’t always good influences. I don’t think that we were intentionally mean in most of these cases, we were just children. For example, we had discovered through years of cutting grass that you can take the hose off of the spark plug and if you hold that spark plug while pulling the start cord, it will shock you. We learned that this is the scientific way of knowing if your spark plug is bad, sort of like licking a nine volt battery. We used to take turns holding the spark plug until somebody chickened out. It was great fun. One day our neighbors were babysitting a couple of boys a bit younger than me, and since the neighbors had three girls, the boys made their way over to play with me. I thought it would be fun to play the lawn mower game, but they had never played. I probably could have explained the rules a little better, because when I snatched the start cord and he received the unexpected shock, he didn’t want to play anymore and went back to the neighbors.

We had another friend that we could talk in doing just about anything, from jumping out of trees, to swimming in the creek in February. I don’t think it was so much our influence as his vulnerability to anyone’s influence.

Bad influence can be disguised as good advice. I once gave my friend Jared the worst good advice I think I’ve ever given.  We were at his house on the back deck at the time. I was watching Jared futilely try to chop a D cell battery in half with a rusty meat cleaver. It was just before supper time and I was about to head to the house, so in order to speed the process up I suggested that Jared use the maul instead of the cleaver. The thought had not occurred to him and he was grateful for the suggestion. He rubbed his hands together, grabbed the maul, hit the battery as if he was splitting wood, and instantly dropped the maul and grabbed at his eyes with his hands. He was hollering like a stuck pig. His parents heard the commotion and rushed out onto the deck. When he moved his hands there was black battery acid all over his face and hands. I ran home as they all piled into the vehicle to go to the emergency room, probably not the way that his parents wanted to spend the evening. I’m not sure if it was because of his injuries, but not long after that Jared started wearing glasses.

Now that I am grown, I’m reliving the cycle of trying to break bad influence, but this time in the role of a parent. Right now I know that my children are very impressionable and susceptible to bad influence. I’m careful about who they play with and what they watch. In a world where bad influence abounds at every turn, I believe that parents, for better or for worse, are the single greatest influence on a child’s life. My parents set clear boundaries and gave clear warnings. More importantly, they followed up with loving admonishment, even if my mother was about to bite off her tongue.

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Driving

“I’m just going to break it to you right off the bat, I get road rage.”

I’m just going to break it to you right off the bat, I get road rage. Hollering at maniac drivers is the closest I come to swearing. My Mom taught me how to holler at “Stupid Idiots” and “Ignorant Savages ” while driving. I’m in the process of passing this family tradition on to my children. The other day I was driving Wes to get a haircut and I had to holler at a “Moron” to get on their side of the road. They didn’t though and I had to swerve to avoid being hit. “Maybe they didn’t hear you Dad.” Wes said calmly.

I guess road rage is putting it harshly. I’ve never tried to run someone off the road, or pulled a pistol. Although I have been in the car when my Uncle Scott pulled a pistol on a crazy driver we saw on the interstate. Looking back now it was a bit surreal, but in the moment you probably would have done the same thing. That’s why I don’t carry a pistol. I can’t remember what offense the other driver had committed, but we didn’t have anymore trouble with him after he saw the pistol. At any rate, I don’t get the kind of road rage that you see on the evening news, I just have little patience with people who are endangering the lives of others on the road, but if you want to know the real reason, I’ve never fully acclimated to being a “city” driver.

Aside from my Uncle Tony letting all of us kids steer an ancient sedan around in the cotton field behind my grandmother’s place, my introduction to driving was in the hayfield. Somewhere around first or second grade I learned to drive in a manual transmission flatbed dually truck. Pop only let me use two pedals, the brake and the clutch. Once you get those trucks into first gear, they’ll pull a load of hay without any acceleration, but every boy craves speed, and the surest way to get an eight year old boy to mess with something is to tell him not to mess with it. It seems that I was overtaken in this temptation and pressed the gas once while we were getting up a load of hay. The truck lurched forward, spilling a stack of hay on the unsuspecting stacker, and it seems like everyone shouted in unison “Stop the truck!” I’m glad they didn’t call me an ignorant savage. My air conditioner privileges were revoked because Pop made me roll the window down for the rest of the day so I could hear him better, and he wouldn’t stand for running the air conditioner with the window down. I was mortally afraid of pressing the gas after that. Even going at a snail’s pace in granny gear I managed to run over quite a few square bales. In my defense though, it was my job to drive and their job to pick up the hay, and many times I ran over a bale that had been neglected. I’d rather not talk about the other times. I also managed to run into the same fence with two different trucks, but I’m writing about driving, not wrecking.

Because my brother was older, he always got to drive the hay truck on the highway if Pop deemed it necessary to break the underage driving law. He was already breaking all the child labor laws, so I don’t know why he made any fuss at all about us driving on the road. We didn’t do this often, mainly just going from one field to another. We’d have done it more if Mom hadn’t have passed Zach on the road. She probably wouldn’t have noticed if Zach hadn’t have blown the horn at her. I normally wouldn’t condone underage driving, but we were on the river loop and there were more cows than people, on top of that, they don’t even line half the roads over there. All the same, Moms are pretty touchy when it comes to the law and all that.

If you learned to drive in the city, you probably wonder about people like me who use animated hand gestures to try to communicate with you on the road. I learned these hand gestures from my Pop as a way to communicate over long distances in the hayfield. I’ve never been able to see all that far anyway and once he had limited range of motion due to Parkinson’s, confusion abounded. I still get that look of bewilderment from drivers when I try to hand gesture to them that they have a blown headlight. These hand signals, like smoke signals and morse code, are mostly a dead language now. The killer: Cell phones.

I did not learn to drive in the city, I learned to drive in a town with only one red light. As a consequence, I despise sitting in traffic, and disdain red lights. I dislike red lights so much that for two years I drove ten miles out of the way on my commute just to avoid four red lights. Growing up, there were only two times that you could expect to sit in traffic in my community. First, there was the annual roadblock to check for drunk drivers.You really wouldn’t have to wait long at the road block once the police recognized you as a local and waved you on by. Then there was the  Christmas Parade. The Christmas Parade was the only time that the main road was shut down. The Parade would start at the High School, go through the red light all the way to the other side of town, about a half a mile away. Once the parade reached the outskirts of town, it circled around and went back to the High School. All the while, the poor folks who didn’t know about the parade were subjected to wait a good half hour while our community celebrated the incarnation and listened to speeches from inebriated judges. All the time there were dozens of cars just lining up to get through, what a mess of traffic!

By the time I was old enough to take drivers education in High School, I had already been driving professionally for eight years. The biggest perk to taking drivers education was that you could take the test to get your license with the same instructor that had been teaching you to drive. My teacher was Coach Livingston, and he only had a couple of rules, the driver got to pick the tunes, and no talking during the exam. We used to zip around in that modified Ford Taurus and talk about Rock’N’Roll. Coach Livingston thought that I should have gone on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a popular show at the time. I learned a lot from Coach Livingston.

“Don’t swerve for roadkill, you could overcorrect and have an accident.”

“Don’t answer the phone while you’re driving, you could get distracted and have an accident.”

“If you have to eat and drive, don’t go to Taco Bell, tacos are too messy and you could have an accident.”

I took serious notes, because I knew how much of a hard time my parents would give me if I wrecked their car. I’d already been through that with Pop. Twice. So I was careful to follow these instructions when it was my turn to drive around the backroads of my hometown. There was hardly ever anyone behind you and if we were lucky, we might pass two cars in an hour. Mostly we had the road to ourselves and it was quite relaxing. There was one time when we didn’t have the supreme reign over the highway. It was my turn behind the wheel and we were on highway 62, headed West toward the BP, when we came upon a whole flock of chickens. I blew the horn and made some hand signals at the chickens, but they didn’t understand. In retrospect, I probably could have checked my speed and applied the brakes. There was an audible and tangible whump, whump as both tires took the life of one of Lamar Hines’ free range chickens.

Driver’s Education in rural Alabama was fun, but in no way prepared me for the rat race of traffic that I would meet in metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri, and Northern Virginia. I don’t even want to talk about trying to drive in the snow. I now have to stop at five red lights just to get to work, and in that time I’ll meet at least one moron, a couple of ignorant savages, and a stupid idiot. Maybe it’s me, I tend to drive below the speed limit on the interstate and major highways, and above the speed limit on backroads and rural areas. My driving  still makes my wife stiffen out and grab that roof handle on the passenger side whenever we make it back to where I grew up. I guess I’m just more comfortable with back roads and stop signs.

Whenever my friends find out that New York City is an easy day trip from where I currently live, and Washington DC is only about an hour and half drive, they are amazed that I have lived here for ten years and never made it to New York, and that I only go to D.C. about once a year. To be frank, I’d rather have a peg leg than have to drive in that D.C. traffic every week. Besides, there are too many red lights.

 

 

 

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Cutting Grass

“It has been my unfortunate lot in life to have cut a double portion of the usual requirement of grass.”

It has been my unfortunate lot in life to have cut a double portion of the usual requirement of grass. I’ve even cut grass for a living, that’s where I learned to say “mow lawns”, which sounds better to the rich people. I first started helping cut grass shortly after I learned to walk. That’s only partially true as my duties were limited to “picking up sticks.” The late Victorian House in which I was raised was situated on a former pecan orchard, so there was no want of limbs to pick up, as you may be well aware that these trees are prone to splitting. There was also no want of pecans to pick up, which is what our task was whenever there was no grass to cut. Dad was very interested in keeping us boys busy, “You boys fill this five gallon bucket up with pecans and I’ll let you wash the car.”

While I picked up limbs Dad would cut the grass with his ancient Snapper riding mower and Zach would push a faded red push mower around the tight places where the Snapper couldn’t reach. Once I was finished picking up the sticks I had to “roll the kudzu back.” Kudzu is an invasive vine brought over from China by the government years ago to help slow erosion. It can grow as much as a foot per day in a climate like central Alabama and if you don’t keep it in check it will soon overtake your yard. I’ve seen kudzu grow up over sidelined box cars on the railroad after they’ve sat for a couple of weeks. You roll the kudzu back by picking up as much of the vine as you can and pushing it back on top of itself. It’s also a good idea to set fire to a kudzu patch once a year or so. It helps if a responsible adult is nearby, but that’s another story.

The first time Dad let me drive the Snapper I drove it straight into the kudzu patch. The vines tangled the blades and shut the mower off. After Dad freed the blades he let me try to drive it again and I almost flipped it when I turned too close to a Pecan tree. I never have had good luck with those Snapper mowers.

Eventually the faded red push mower and the Snapper died from being overworked and Dad bought Zach and me brand new, matching grey Briggs & Stratton push mowers. He was very thoughtful, knowing that we might fight over who got to cut grass. Our Pastor had asked over the pulpit for volunteers to cut the church grass, my Dad spoke up immediately, “Me and the boys will do it.” Cutting the church grass wasn’t all that bad, since the church was only about two hundred yards down the hill from our house. The biggest problem with the church grass was that for the most part it was a just a ditch about fifty yards long. This is where I learned to hate Weed-Eaters. I was grown before I realized that Weed-Eater was a brand, so it’s hard to call them anything else. Cheap trimmers always rotate the wrong way and turn your pants green with grass clippings. Once I slipped and fell while trimming the weeds on a huge pile of top soil that sat too long from a parking lot expansion. I fell on top of the still running Weed-Eater and it whipped my shins for a few seconds as I tightly gripped the handle, which maxed out the throttle. A lot goes through your mind when you’re in a tight spot like that.

When Zach got his license Dad upgraded us to a Murray riding mower. Now, in addition to mowing the church grass, we got to load the riding mower in the truck and go cut my grandmother’s grass. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d have had a ramp to load the mower. We learned to despise that mower because the blades would come loose. Sometimes you wouldn’t realize that until you got ready to make the next lap. When the blades came loose, the entire mowing operation came to a halt. You had to find your brother who was fighting a losing battle with a cheap Weed-Eater, because tightening the blades was a two man operation. We would lift the front end of the mower and stand it up perpendicular to the ground, one brother would hold the mower steady and the other brother would try to tighten the blades with a rusty pair of channel-locks and a crescent wrench. This whole issue could have been remedied in about two minutes if Dad would have had a socket wrench set. My brother and I thought that a socket wrench set was the most expensive tool kit made.

As a teenager I did some work for our local blacksmith doing odd jobs around the farm. While he did have a nice Weed-Eater that didn’t throw the grass clippings on you, he still had an old Snapper mower. You don’t complain much when you’re finally getting paid to mow, so I put a smile on and learned to drive the Snapper. There were fences all over the property and some of them were electric. There was one particular hill that I had to mow that had an electric fence at the bottom. Although it was a little nerve racking to mow on an incline next to the electric fence, I soon got the hang of it. The trick was never to drive down the hill toward the fence, but rather to drive alongside of it. One early morning I was mowing the grass still wet with dew. I made the first pass right up against the fence without any issues, but somehow when I was turning to make another pass the mower tires slipped on the wet grass and I was heading straight toward the electric fence. I managed to make a right turn as I slammed into the electric fence. The hill was so steep that I slipped off the mower as I was flying down the hill. When I finally stopped, my left foot was caught under the still running mower deck, my right foot was on the mower and I was pinned between the heavy mower and the electric fence. A lot goes through your mind when you’re in a tight spot like that. I couldn’t reach the ignition switch to turn off the mower that was still in gear forcing me against the electric fence. Electric fences are not like what you see in Superman cartoons. Thank God. They only send pulses of electricity. I don’t know how long I sat there getting shocked every couple of seconds and feeling the mower blade cut into my boot. Eventually the top strand of wire on the fence broke allowing me enough range of motion and presence of mind to switch off the Snapper. I never have had good luck with those Snapper mowers.

When I moved away from my hometown I had a brief stint knocking doors for a lawn care business. We were supposed to be securing leads for the field reps to come give estimates on lawn care and irrigation. When I learned that people were willing to pay money to install sprinklers for the sole purpose of making grass grow I was dumbfounded. Who in the world would want to make grass grow on purpose? I had spent a good portion of my life up until then keeping grass at bay by mowing it as low as I could. Once I started working for a professional mowing service I learned that it is “more healthy” for the grass if you don’t mow it so low. I also learned that you’re supposed to sharpen your mower blades once in a while. But my biggest revelation came when I learned that a socket wrench set was in fact quite affordable. This was a lot of information at one time. Do y0u remember how you felt after first learning that Santa Claus wasn’t real? Or that feeling when you realized that your big brother’s Bowie knife had not actually belonged to the real Jim Bowie, but in fact was made in Pakistan? Or the sinking feeling you had when you learned that the Lone Ranger was just an actor? If you remember those feelings, then you understand how I felt. I decided that it might be time to start looking for another job.

In recent years I have been fortunate enough to be in retirement from cutting grass. Now you’re probably expecting me to write about reconciling with all the mowers of my past and let this story have a happy ending. I could write something sentimental about how now I realize that I learned many life lessons behind the wheel of a Murray lawnmower. I could describe the therapeutic feeling that mowing lawns brings because you’re able to see the finished work. I could tell you that I miss the relaxation and solitude of riding a zero turn mower while listening to opera on fancy noise cancelling headphones. But I won’t, I don’t like to lie. I hate cutting grass and I don’t miss it.

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Bargain Town

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers.

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers. There were no murderers except for the man across the street from our house who was crazy and would shoot squirrels with a .30 06 and eventually went to prison for shooting his wife one afternoon with a .45. And of course there was the lady down the street that ended up going to prison for hiring a hitman to knock off someone, the details are a little fuzzy since that happened before my time. Maybe it wasn’t as safe as I remember, but we certainly didn’t worry about anything as children. Besides that, we only ever played with Jared and Creed, the two neighbor kids down the street. And Bargain Town, the town drunk.

Perhaps you don’t know, but Bargain Town was a chain of dollar stores in central Alabama.  I only remember the one in Childersburg, but I say chain to sound more prestigious. I don’t know who gave him the name Bargain Town, but it stuck. When my brother found out his name was Wayne Edwards and called him Mr. Edwards being respectful, Bargain Town got upset and retorted, “You ain’t gotta call me Mr. Edderds, son! Bargain Town, or just plain ole B.T. is good enough.” Bargain Town was perpetually inebriated. Zach once watched him trip over a sales receipt in the parking lot of the local grocery store where he bought his beer. I think he was about 6’3” if he ever stood up straight, but he was stooped over from the burden of a lifetime of poor decisions. He probably weighed 160 lbs even without a haircut, as his dark hair was usually a month late for an appointment with the barber. He always had a trucker hat, the kind with the foam front and mesh in the back. His eyes were beady and black and his skin looked like wrinkled leather, another testament of his hard living. He had a twitch in his face and his hands were very shaky from years of alcoholism. He was a faithful Milwaukee’s Best drinker and rolled his own cigarettes with Bugle Boy Tobacco. It was quite a scene to watch him roll a cigarette since he struggled so much with his shaky hands. He would bite his tongue to keep his face from shaking, and on a good day only spilled about half an ounce of tobacco. Bargain Town looked like a weather beaten scarecrow walking down the street always carrying a case of “Momma’s Best.” His gangling limbs were made all the more unwieldy, due to his extreme skinniness. He was a gaunt caricature to be sure, but harmless.

I first remember meeting Bargain Town in a game of hide and seek at Jared and Creed’s house. It was my turn to search for the other three boys when a voice came from across the road, “He’s over there behind ‘em bushes.” Startled, I whipped around to see who had spoken. There sat Bargain Town, Indian style drinking a can of beer. He was in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture. We were petrified of Tom Bell, who was about 85 years old and owned half of Vincent, and was half blind with age. Legend has it that he had boasted, “Vincent is as big as I want it to be.” I’m not sure why we were so afraid of Mr. Bell, probably because we thought he was going to catch us playing on his land, which we were all to guilty of doing, it being a shortcut to the river and all. This fear was only exacerbated by the fact the Mr. Bell had nearly killed Jared with his ancient Ford truck one day when Jared burst out of the woods on a bicycle. Fortunately Jared got away with only a broken arm. The fact that Bargain Town was sitting in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture so casually, in broad daylight made him an instant hero in my eight year old mind. Here was a man who was immune to the crippling fear of Mr. Tom Bell. Bargain Town flippantly tossed his empty beer can into Mr. Bell’s pasture, stood up, took what seemed like two steps to the fence that stood about five yards away, and throwing his leg in front of him stepped over the decrepit barbed wire fence. We went on to find all of the boys.

From then on, it seemed like just about every time we were playing, Bargain Town was with us. Whether we were fishing, walking the tracks, or just playing in the pasture. Sometimes Clemmy came too. Clemmy was Bargain Town’s girlfriend, I think. She was about the same age and looked like a raisin. She didn’t talk much. They had another friend named Peanut that had a car. I’m not sure what Peanut’s name was, but he stank to high heaven. I could smell him three aisles away at the grocery store. We didn’t hang out with Peanut.

Bargain Town talked with a peculiar idiosyncrasy in that he finished every sentence with “and evah’thang”, or “and evah gol’dang thang”, or more colorfully “and evah G.D. thang.” Oddly enough he would use the initials and the full vulgarity equally. This made for interesting conversation.

I remember one day Jared, Creed, Zach and I were walking down the railroad tracks on our way to our favorite swimming hole. We had just passed the water tower and were at the intersection where the service road crossed the railroad tracks, when we were hailed by Bargain Town to “hold up”. Looking over into the field, another of Tom Bell’s, we saw where Bargain Town had constructed a tent by draping a blue tarp over a round bale of hay. We waited for Bargain Town to come and meet us, he gathering all of his accoutrements, namely his case of beer and cigarette ingredients. He finally made it to the crossing and I guess the fifty yard trek had winded him because he said, “Hol’ on a minute boys, I got to set down and have me a col’beer, an’ evah’thang.” Bargain Town did not drink beer, he drank “col’beer.”

Bargain Town was a bit of a philosopher. It was a bit hard to follow a drunken man with a wandering dialect when you are eight or nine years old, but I did my best. He said to me that it was not good to not talk, “You keep all that in ye head, an’evah’thang, and never let it out, an’evah’thang, and then one day it all comes out and it blows up! an’ evah’G.D.’thang.” He usually saved the G.D. for the finale, and thus drove his point home. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. I guess me not talking made him nervous.

Once He finished his beer he stood up and said, “Where y’all headed?”  We told him that we were going swimming in the creek. “That creek ain’t deep enough, let me take you to the spring, an’evah’thang.” So we discussed it amongst ourselves and as our usual swimming hole was only about knee deep in most places we thought that it was a good idea and agreed to let Bargain Town lead us to deeper waters. We did not take into account that this spring was right in the middle of Tom Bell’s pasture, so we were nervous the whole trip.

We finally did arrive without Mr. Bell noticing and firing up his Old Ford to run us down ( I make him much more of a villain than he was, he was in fact a kind man who had beautiful handwriting, if that makes a difference.) The spring was in the middle of the creek that was surrounded by trees. Bargain Town flopped down and began to roll a cigarette, “There she is boys, I’ll be in after I have myself a col’beer an’evah’thang.” We began to strip down to our trunks and wade into the water. The water was freezing, even in August, and the spring was deep, but not very wide. The most amazing thing about a spring like that is how crystal clear the water is. We were having a big time ducking each other under the water and playing Marco Polo when someone pointed out that B.T. was turned away from us and taking off his shirt. It doesn’t seem odd or out of place to take your shirt off to go swimming, but in all our years hanging with B.T., he had never been swimming with us and thus we had never seen him without his shirt. We were shocked by what we saw. I’m not talking about the extreme farmer’s tan, because we all sported one of those, but the long scar on his back that ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. He had told us about being in the “Pen”. He would get upset if you didn’t use his lingo on a lot of things, I learned that “jail” or “prison” were quite offensive terms to someone who had done time in the “Pen”, or Penitentiary, although I still struggle to make out the difference. “I used to help cook in the Pen, an’evah’thang. They wouldn’t wash the beans and they’d be bugs and worms an’evah’thang in ‘um. You always ‘post to wash ye beans ‘fore you eat’em an’evah,thang.” Although we had heard this story a few times, none of us had ever dared to ask him why he had been in the “Pen”. Here we sat in the water looking at the proof of how he got in. We stared in wonder. Finally someone bucked up the courage to ask him how he got that scar. “Somebody cut me.” This is all the answer we got, but it seems that I heard the story from an adult when I told them about the scar.

We were told that Bargain Town had been in a bar fight. Someone had followed him into the bathroom and slashed his back with a jackknife. Bargain Town in turn broke the toilet tank lid over the knifeman’s head. This may have been why he ended up in the Pen.

I think it was less out of being stingy and more out of respect that Bargain Town never offered us alcohol or cigarettes. He was not evangelistic in his bad habits, but rather knew that he was a sinner and realized that we were untainted from the vices that bore down so hard on him. Bargain Town was from a generation which still believed in right and wrong and he knew that he was wrong. Even with this knowledge he could not break free from the consequences nor the grip of a life time of bad decisions. It’s pitiful to think about now that I’m an adult and this should be reason enough for anyone to avoid alcohol.

As I got older, I got a job at the local grocery store. We no longer went on long walks through the woods with Bargain Town, pausing every hundred yards or so to wait on him as he had a col’beer, but I still saw him a couple of times a week as he came in to get groceries and beer. Mostly beer. Since he didn’t have a car and was never sober enough to drive anyway, sometimes he would come to the store with Peanut, whose stench preceded him. But more often than not, he came alone. One day I was stocking the milk in the cooler, one of my only duties at the store on the evening shift, when I noticed Bargain Town walk in the front door, which could be seen from behind the milk shelf in the cooler at the back of the store. I knew that he was going to come get a case of Milwaukee’s Best so I decided to mess with him a little. As he stumbled over to the beer case and reached in to retrieve a case of beer, I held down each case that he grabbed for a few seconds as he struggled to pull it out. I put on my best ghost voice and said as spookily as I could, “Bargain Town!” He wheeled around and looked down the aisle both ways wondering who had called him. I said his name again, and he jerked around and hunkered down to look through the beer shelf. He recognized me and realized that I had been pulling his leg. “Shoowee! I thought my Momma’s Best was talking to me!” For the rest of the evening I wondered what Momma’s Best had told him over the years.

I would not recommend that you let your children roam around town with the town drunk, especially these days. I know that Mr. Edwards would have not let anyone bother us, and I don’t think he would have let us partake in his bad habits even if we had begged him, stingy would have taken up where honor left off. Through the eyes of a young child I watched first hand as Bargain Town struggled through life with the crushing weight of alcohol addiction. I watched him stumble over the lines in the road, and try catch his balance while standing still. I watched the involuntary twitching in his face and his trembling hands as he tried to roll his own cigarettes. I watched him week after week buy case upon case of the cheapest beer sold at our little grocery store. Somehow I don’t believe that this was the life he had hoped for as a young man. Maybe it was, but I doubt it. Although us boys spent far too much time romping around town with a drunken man fifty years our senior, at least none of us turned out to be alcoholics. I think Bargain Town would be glad to know that.