Howl

Clear skies and cold.  The moon 75 percent waxing gibbous.  Her zenith around 8:00 p.m.  Tonight he will be back, down in the bottom field, just 100 yards below the house.

The song begins with a few sharp barks, then a crescendo into a long, mournful soprano.  It will be answered from down in the swamp bottom first, then from another pack two ridges over, a double-chorus of Banshees, each with no individually distinguishable voice.  They could be 50 or even a 100, a ruckus that almost make a man feel surrounded in some Jack London tale.  Stoke-up the fire as the circle tightens.

My pit will lift his head, awakened from whatever canine dreams be on a winter night.  His growl low and deep, as if it originates somewhere around his back haunches.  Each lasts about ten seconds, followed by a single syllable “umph.”  A ridge of hair stands like a white belt from skull to tail, a sign that he is approaching the red line, where some other creature has produced in him a rage that will lead to fury.

I say “hush, now,” but he will not be quieted until the lone singer and his cacophony of answering choirs have ceased.  I need only open the door and he will charge off into the night.

I wonder, not being well-versed in coyote song.  Is he calling out of loneliness, or simply trying to locate the others, to gauge their distance?  A measuring of reasonable trot should he be so inclined to rejoin the evening rituals of the pack.

I like to think that it is a voluntary solitude.  Chosen, not forced.  Still a path back.  But I don’t know the ways of coyotes.

Sunday past I found a single arrowhead on a low, flat ridge above the creek bottom.  The first in twenty-five years of walking this land.  The parent rock just beside, cleft clearly visible where two pieces once fit together.  I looked again, for where there is one there are usually more, indicating a camp, even a temporary village.  But there were no more.  A single piece of flint shaped by a solitary man.

This lack of relics is curious.  I stand five miles as the crow flies from the last stand of the Creek Nation, fought to the last man, woman and child in the shallow bend of a river.  Stone points and wooden shafts no match for Andrew Jackson’s band of muskets.

Again I wonder.  Was the point-maker in voluntary solitude?  Still close enough to coyote-call over the low ridges.  Far enough to escape the evening banter.

Perhaps kindred spirits, man and coyote.  Seeking solitude, but always curious if others are still within range.

Maybe only on this patch of sacred land.  Solitude calls to solitude.

The sun is setting.  I have cornbread in the oven, Hoppin’ John in the pot.  I build my  evening fire against the chill.

Bully and I await the moon.  The evening performance will begin soon.

Tonight we howl.

 

Roshambo

books

I hold it in my hand, a connection between what was and what is.

An old book I received from my mother at Christmas, a priceless gift of what was.  Aged and somewhat worse for wear.  Yellowed pages, but still in remarkable condition.

I read it last night.  A children’s book titled Billy, by Irene Elliot Benson.  Published in 1912, it was also a Christmas gift, to my grandfather by his sister in 1916.  Inside the cover, written in a beautiful cursive:  “To Raymond from Loretta, Xmas 1916.”

The story is not remarkable, a fictional tale of an orphan who is adopted by a well-to-do lady.  A romantic “happily ever after” written in the style of Charles Dickens.

I am struck by the language.  There are words that I don’t know, have never seen.  I wonder if even children a century ago had a greater command of the language than adults today, the age in which the young (or even the middle-aged) communicate in one or two electronic sentences, many of which aren’t even complete thoughts.  Lines filled with what I call “glyphs.”  Little smiley faces.  Hearts.  Thumbs-up.  The era of LOL and BFF.

I like paper books because they are solid, something that I can hold in my hand.  Something that someone else held in their hand 103 years ago.

An hour later I pick up what is, my Kindle.  I read a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, knowing full well that I am a hypocrite, a slave to immediate gratification.  Want to read William Faulkner?  A click and a charge to a credit card and one minute later you are at the title page (but who am I kidding, no one wants to read “The Sound and the Fury” unless they are taking American Lit. at the University, and even then they don’t want to read it).

This morning I look at the considerable number of books on my bookshelves.  I look at images of books on a small screen.

Some (maybe most) will say that I am old-fashioned, but I cannot shake the feeling that the first will long-survive the latter.  Scissors cut paper.  Paper covers Cloud.

I look at what I write here, and know that one day it will simply vanish.

I will finish Mr. Vonnegut, but I am resolved to return to paper.  I have more room on my shelves.  If I run out, I can always build more.

One day my grandchild will hold a yellowed book.  Just inside the cover will be a few lines, “To Ray from Mom, Christmas 1968.”

I hope that will mean as much to her as Billy means to me.

 

On Blogging

typewriter

“A blog?  What is a blog?”

A co-worker asked this question.  He is a real writer, an old-school journalist who made his bones in the newsrooms of two of Alabama’s largest newspapers, back in the day when there were print newspapers.

“Well, uh, um, it’s an internet thing where people write about stuff.”

I am a silver-tongued devil.  A published author I met once told me “You are smarter than you look, and you write a whole lot better than you talk.”

My friend’s response to blogging was derisive.  “What’s the point of that?”

Indeed, sir.

The point of blogging, at least for me, is that I simply like to write.  It takes a lot of time (more than you would believe), and I am rarely satisfied with the final result.  I certainly do not do it for money, because there isn’t any to be made as far as I can tell.  There are a few writers who have figured out a way to turn blogging into an occupation, mostly through ad sales, but I don’t see a market for the little homespun “aw-shucks” essays that I write.  I simply do not have enough readers to justify advertising dollars.

I have written a few pieces that actually made it to print.  Several in a trade magazine, and a couple of others in a small town weekly newspaper.  But I have never been paid for a single word.

Just once I would like get a check in the mail, and just once I was really close.

A few years ago I ran across an advertisement for free-lance writers for a quarterly magazine.  I would describe this publication as “hotsy totsy,” because it caters to rich lake house owners.  Sort of a small-scale imitation of Southern Living or Garden and Gun.

I sent the editor an email and received an immediate response.  She hired me sight unseen (or writing unseen, as it were).  My assignment was to write a 5,000 word story about a local Vietnam veteran whose valor had earned the Medal of Honor.  I had a five-day deadline to conduct an interview and submit the story.

The pay was a whopping $50, but I eagerly accepted.

The interview took about four hours of a Saturday, and I spent about 20 more writing and re-writing  to “get it right.”  The finished result was a high-gloss feature story.  One sentence was edited in my final draft.

I was pleased and proud to actually hold something I had written in my hand, but I never got that $50.  The publisher’s response to my telephone inquiries were the equivalent of the old “the check is in the mail” line.

That editor called me about a month later with another assignment.  This one had a 48 hour deadline.  I politely passed.  I have a day job that actually pays the bills.

Thus ended my brief career as a freelance writer.

Still, I have not given up the dream of getting paid for something I wrote some sunny day.

Maybe I just need to ask for a $25 advance.

 

Hillary

I teach a class about forestry and logging.  It is a part of an overall strategy to replace an aging workforce in one of Alabama’s largest and most important industries.

The class requires that I set-up shop for a few weeks in rural areas.  Places where jobs are scarce as hen’s teeth and logging is one of the few options left if you want to work where you grew up.  My students are mostly young (under 30) and without the means or inclination to go college.

Hillary is one of those people.

I was intrigued when she called to apply for the class.  I have worked in forestry for over 25 years now, and I have never seen a female logger.  She had missed the deadline, but I told her to go online and complete an application.  She said she “wasn’t good on computers,” so I took her information by phone.  Everything was fine until I got to the last question:  “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

There was a pause.

“Charged or convicted?”

I liked that answer.  No pretense.  No guile.  I liked it so much that I didn’t ask for details.

I had my suspicions.  They were confirmed day-one.

Hillary is a recovered meth addict.

The details of her struggle were volunteered over the course of the next five weeks.  They were non-linear, a picture puzzle of a life story that I could only assemble as she put the next piece in place.  Her memories were triggered by a classroom concept, a person we encountered, or the roads we traveled.

“You see that spot over there?  I wrecked my momma’s car there one night when I was sixteen.  I’d been partying hard, and I think I must have went to sleep.  I was all banged-up from the steering wheel when I woke up, but I remember thinking the cops would be coming soon and I needed to get my story straight.  ‘Was I headed home, or was I coming from home?””

“That’s the Girl’s Home.  I spent a year there when my daddy got high and beat-up me and momma.”

“When me and my first old man split-up, he told me that I wouldn’t make it, that I’d never have a pot to piss in, but I showed him.  I worked two jobs and saved most of what I made and bought a nice house. You can work fine when your using, ’cause you really don’t need much sleep.”

“They took my fist girl away when I got busted.  I knew I didn’t have enough on me for felony possession, so I kept my mouth shut.  They put me in jail for a month.  Told me I was headed to prison, but they’d let me go if I’d just tell them where I got it.  No way I was going to do that.  Better in jail than dead.”

“I won’t take so much as a sinus pill, now.  I get drug-tested once a month, and I ain’t taking any chances.  It’s part of my probation.”

“I was seven when I started using.  My aunt gave it to me.”

I listened to all these things without question, until one day when I just had to ask.

“How did you quit?”

“When I found out I was pregnant, I prayed and prayed.  I told Jesus that if he’d just let my baby be born alright that I’d never touch it again.  I haven’t used since.”

Hillary finished the class, and as we say down here she can ‘flat-out run’ logging machines.

I met that little girl at graduation.  She’s four years old.  Blonde and pretty.

Hillary kept her end of the bargain.

Looks like Jesus did too.

 

This Little Light of Mine

flashlight

Let’s just say I’m lacking.

My dad could fix almost anything mechanical.  His degree came from the School of Necessity, a university a lot of men attended in the mid-20th century South.  We were not poor by standards then or now, but there wasn’t a lot of cash lying around to spend on things like eating out or buying new cars.  I think dad only had one new vehicle, a Chevy pickup that he managed to keep running for the last 15 years of his too-short life.

Some traits are genetic.  Mechanical ability apparently is not.  Or perhaps it just skips a generation every now and then.  I am mechanically-challenged.  My youngest son is not.  He simply clicks-up YouTube, watches a couple of videos, then proceeds to do things like rebuild the front end of a wrecked motorcycle he bought at a good price.

I watch the videos too.  All they do for me is remind me that I am a mechanical doofus.

It’s not that I didn’t have my chances to learn.  My dad worked on that aforementioned  pickup almost as frequently as he stopped to put gas in it.  I remember replaced starters, water pumps, radiators — even a transmission.  I was the assistant for all these repairs, but I didn’t learn the skills to actually do them.

I was standing right there.  But my mind was not.  It was always somewhere else, like on that girl in seventh grade homeroom, the skinny one with the big brown eyes and the double railroad track braces.

I did develop a specialty, however, one that I am skillful at even today.  It’s called “HOLD THE LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I don’t know why that old pickup had a tendency to break down in darkness, or maybe we just didn’t get finished before sunset.  But dad was going to finish.  Not finishing meant not having a way to get to work the next day.  Not working meant not getting paid.  Not getting paid meant not — well, you get the picture.

My skill at “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE” was developed through a rigorous training system that usually went something like this:

“Hold that light over here on the bolt.”

“Yes, April, I would like to hold your hand.”

“What?”

“Uh, um, yessir.”

“No son, on the bolt, not on my hand.  I can see my hand.  Shine it on the bolt.”

“Yessir.”

“On the bolt, son.  HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

It took years to master.

A few nights ago the Redhead called me from a gas station.  “I just filled-up, and now it won’t start.  All the indicator lights are flashing on the dashboard, but it won’t turn over.  Not even a click.”

“Ah,” I said.  “The battery is dead.  I’ll grab some tools and a flashlight and be there in a few.”

Fortunately, there was an Advance Auto Parts right across the highway.  I managed to get the battery out.  Ran over and bought the replacement.  Dropped it right back in.  But the cables would not fully-tighten on the posts.

“This must be the wrong battery,” I said.  “They’re on well enough to get us over to the store.  Follow me.”

There was no look of skepticism or disappointment.  The Redhead knows my limitations.

Parts Guy immediately diagnosed the problem.  “These new batteries are made so that the cables won’t fit tight on the terminals.  You need sleeves.  We have those.  Let me grab a set and I’ll help you hook it up.”

No, I did not ask why he didn’t sell me the sleeves when he sold me the battery.  But I sure thought it.

Parts Guy had trouble with the installation too.  After twenty minutes of wriggling, cussing and finagling he finally got that battery installed properly.  I just stood there, flashlight in hand.

Not once did he say “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I told you I had skills.

 

Author’s note:  This is not a Christmas story per se, as you might have expected.  But in a way it is, at least in a metaphorical sense.

A lot of people will have difficulty seeing the light today in a sea of darkness.

If you have the light, try to shine it in some way that may help them see it too.

Sleigh Ride

sled

I no longer listen.

As the years pass, Christmas songs have simply lost their magic.  I am a grown man.  My sons are grown.  If it were not for the grandbabies, I would have little motivation to do anything on Christmas Day other than say a simple prayer of gratitude, which I plan to do anyway.

Note that I did not say Christmas carols, which are a different subject altogether.  My favorite is Sweet Little Jesus Boy, a negro spiritual written in the ’30’s by the late Robert MacGimsey, a white man from Mississippi.  I suppose he and I are some sort of racists in today’s America.  I contend we both know a good carol when we hear (or write) one.

A couple of weeks ago the Redhead and I went to church to hear the dreaded “Christmas Musical.”  She sings in the choir, so I sort of had to go.  Men with wives, red-haired or otherwise, understand the “had to” part in the last sentence.  “At least I will get to hear some of the old carols,” I thought.  “Maybe they will get me in the Christmas spirit.”

Imagine my surprise when the choir opened with “Sleigh Ride.”  You know the one.  “It’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.”

And there you have it.  That is why I no longer listen to those old Christmas songs.  They are outright lies for someone who lives in the deep South.

I am from a small town in central Alabama.  When I was a kid, there was a Western Auto  downtown on Broadway.  I went there a lot with my dad because it was an auto parts store, something he needed frequently back in the day when you had to fix your own car. And trust me, dad spent a lot of time fixing.

Western Auto was more than today’s auto parts store.  Between walls covered with hoses, belts, and batteries were shelves lined with things that kept a boy occupied while his dad and a greasy guy looked for a water pump for a ’63 Rambler.  Bicycles (Western Flyer was the store-brand, a forgotten piece of Americana), sporting goods (from the Red Ryder BB gun to the more tempting Revelation 20-gauge single-shot shotgun) and other merchandise made a boy yearn for that glorious “some day, when you’re all grown-up.”

But the one thing that got my complete attention, every year just before Christmas, was the Flexible Flyer sled that sat on the top shelf in the center aisle at the very front of the store.  I would stand there, transfixed, hoping that Santa Claus might see fit to leave it under our lop-sided red cedar Christmas tree.  I dreamed of dashing through the snow, bells jingling, while my mom and dad went walking through a winter wonderland on that white Christmas.

Every year I asked my dad for that sled.  Every year he said “No.”

Finally one year, exasperated, he stated the obvious.  “Son, it don’t snow here.”

Seems like I would have figured that out in eight or nine years of living, but my childish hopes were still anchored in those lying Christmas songs.  Alabama Christmas is not white.  It may be gray, which I suppose sort of approaches white, but any precipitation is drop and not flake.

And yet even here the lies continue.  Some time back three ol’ boys from north Alabama made a pile of money with the song “Christmas in Dixie.”  It goes “Christmas in Dixie, it’s snowing in the pines…”

Liars.  I will not listen to your propaganda.  There won’t be any snow here on Christmas Day.  Not this year.  Not ever.

Still, after all these years I have to wonder.

Did any kid’s daddy ever buy that sled?

Meribah*

lightning-3

 

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300-year-old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time.  Other time-worn sojourners are here too:  gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak.  Even the carpet of huckleberry where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old.  Much older than I am.  Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf has been struck by lightning.  I see the long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from the topmost branch down to the ground. The wound is old, but a wound none-the-less, a visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant.  The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A ground-fire blazed up from the lightning strike.  A momentary conflagration in the great cycle of nature’s binge and purge.  Brief, yes, but intense.  The smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon were scorched before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames.  Such is the nature of summer storms.  Not always the tallest and strongest take the hit and suffer.  Sometimes innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket.  It is a talisman of a sort, a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon.  We are not protected from jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the quiet stillness of heavy air.  Such acts are not random, though they may appear so.  They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time.  No other way that they could be.  Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day.  No other place this trail could be.  No other time that it could be walked by me in this way in or this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line.  It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me.  I imagine from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough.  The soil is eroded and thin.  Nothing grows here for lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite.  This is where the timber-rattler comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again.  Another trail, faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope.  A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent.  Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know.  Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now.  I will go down the steep side-slope to the broad level land in the hollow below.  A creek flows there, although I cannot see it or hear its music yet.

A little spot near that creek is my destination.

 

*Author’s note:  Occasionally I like to write short fiction.  I wrote this short story in 2013, so I expect that not many of you have read it.  It is rather long for a blog format, so I will be publishing it here as it was originally presented, as a “serial.”  This is good and bad.  Good in that you will probably read it if I keep the word-count down so as to keep your attention.  Bad if you somehow read the next installment without understanding that something came before it.