Delta*

If you find yourself in downtown Delta don’t go looking for the river because it’s not close by.  No cotton, no corn, no rich alluvial farms that stretch out so far and flat that heat shimmers upward in waves in summer and a good shade tree and a cold drink of water might be worth a thousand bucks if you had it to spend.  No history of callused black hands picking cotton on the plantation, or of poor white tenants buying supplies on the promise of cotton prices that never seemed to pay-out at harvest time.  No dynasties in this Delta, be they Duck or otherwise.  You might find the Blues down at the crossroads, but don’t go expecting to make any deals with the devil for your guitar licks.  The Book says that even he has limited time, so he likely shops up the road in Anniston.

On the west side of Highway 9 you’ll find the post office and general store.  Not much on the shelves in store, and I wonder if a couple of thousand dollars might buy the entire inventory.  It does offer “Hunt Brothers Pizza!” and “Wing Bites!” — but you won’t find much to wash them down.  The coolers aren’t full and the selection of soft drinks is limited.  You won’t find a beer because Clay County is “dry,” one of few counties in Alabama still under prohibition.  Again, if you’re looking for a little sin head on up to Anniston.

Next door is the “Delta Mall,” an old-style brick and glass-front facade building that is empty but for a few items that look like they might pass for antiques.  A handmade sign near the door near reads “Come Buy Honey!”

I wonder where Honey lives, but there is no one to ask.

Across the highway is “G & S Auto Sales” which has no autos to sell.  Next to that is “Morrison Feed and Meat” which I assume has got a man covered from calf to freezer.

I head west of the crossroads and find the Clay County public lake, which offers fishing for three dollars a day.  Business is good for a weekday, and a man with a heavy stringer of bream looks to be getting his money’s worth.

Headed back I notice my friend The Land Man has a nice old farm for sale.  Sturdy country house with a big front porch.  I let my mind wander for a second and see the picture postcard potential.  A little sweat and diesel fuel would put that land back as it should be.  Add a porch swing and a dog or two and contentment is served at sunset every day.

Back at the crossroads I take a second look and notice that everything in Delta is neat as a pin.  Prosperity may have moved on down the road (if she ever lived here to begin with), but nothing looks run-down or neglected.  Mostly it looks lonesome, like some stray lyric in an old Hank Williams song.

Lonesome suited Hank in a convoluted way, and sometimes it suits me too.  I reckon we both believe that the best way to view it is in the rear view mirror as you head back out on the road.

 

*This piece originally appeared here in 2014.  According to the analytics on this site, it was read by more people than anything I have ever written — several thousand in one day.  Unfortunately, most of these readers carried torches and pitchforks because they felt I had been disrespectful to the community and the county.  I had no intentions of that whatsoever.

I have tried to be more careful with metaphors since.

 

Tender Things

I once helped a friend mark timber on his client’s small ownership near Auburn, Alabama.  Timber marking is forester lingo for painting a mark on each tree to be cut from a designated area of a forest.  It is a select cut or partial harvest, as opposed to a clear cut in which all trees are removed before reforestation.

The middle-aged landowner lived alone in a rustic cabin that he had designed and built himself.  He was a factory worker by day and a musician in a local band by night.  I would describe him as an “artsy” type, but I could just say he was an old hippie.  He gave us a quick tour of the cabin’s interior which was decorated with framed concert posters from the ’60’s and ’70’s, some of his own original paintings, and even handmade furniture.  I thought it was all pretty amazing, but I excused myself to walk the woods while my friend discussed business with his client.

Against my friend’s counsel, this nice man insisted that he wanted to sell only the largest, most valuable pine trees on his land.  He wanted none of the other trees cut or damaged in any way.

I suppose he was a gentle spirit with an empty wallet.

My friend chuckled a little as he gave me my instructions. “He wants you to mark the pines so that they can be cut tenderly. Those were his exact words. “I’d like it cut tenderly.'”

Now I am a forester by profession but I’m also a word-man, and though I wasn’t a part of the conversation with the owner, I would been compelled to teach a brief lesson in semantics.

Allow me to explain, dear reader.

Some tender things:

  • a mother’s touch;
  • a baby’s bottom;
  • a lover’s caress;
  • a butterfly kiss;
  • a nice filet;
  • a sprained ankle;
  • a broken heart.

Some things that are not so tender:

  • a cockfight;
  • a right uppercut to the chin;
  • a grizzly bear with cubs;
  • a T-bone steak at Waffle House;
  • a hornet’s nest;
  • a half-time speech when you’re down by three touchdowns;
  • a hickory switch;

And most importantly, a 90 foot tall pine tree when it is severed from the stump.

A pine tree this large will break, smash, cripple, maim, annihilate, or otherwise destroy anything it touches as it proceeds from the vertical to horizontal.  Don’t blame the logger, blame gravity — it’s the law, you know?

I have a feeling the musician sang the blues when his trees were cut.

I, however, sang a little tune as I marked them.  It went:

“Softly and tenderly
timber is falling,
Falling for you and for me…”

You have to be an old Baptist to get that joke.

 

A version of this story appeared here in 2009.

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.

 

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.

Skinny Girls and High Culture

ballerina

A forester and high culture are two things that don’t seem to jibe.

I imagine when I say I am a forester you assume my culture would be NASCAR, country music, and killin’ animals for sport.  That might be true in some cases.

Not this forester.  I aspire to explore higher levels of culture.

I thought I would give the opera a try.  I heard this Pavarotti fellow had a set of fine tenor pipes, so I thought I would give him a listen.  I downloaded “The Best of Pavarotti,” not knowing that this collection would total about 90 songs.  After three or four, I decided that the opera was not for me.  The man can sing, no doubt, but what is he singing about?  Does he know English?

Do you know how long it takes to delete 90 songs?  I do.

Then I tried ballet.  Now to be completely truthful (which I rarely am in my writing — that’s the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”), I attended a ballet at the request of a cousin, who I love very much.  She has a preteen daughter who is an aspiring ballerina.  I love her too.

My first ballet was “Zelda,” which was loosely based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Very loosely.  I know a good bit about Zelda Fitzgerald.  I’ve read most of her husband’s novels, and she was from Montgomery, Alabama where I work every day.

I was puzzled.  I found it very hard to relate what I saw to what I knew.

The next performance was “The Nutcracker.”  It had something to do with Christmas.

This past Sunday I attended “Frida!”  This one was about a Mexican communist with a unibrow.  I had to “Google” it to learn that much.

It took three puzzling performances to figure it out.  This kind of ballet is not about story.  It’s about teaching young girls the technique necessary to become ballerinas.

I can relate to that.  I have taught quite a few boys how to swing a baseball bat.  Perhaps one day I’ll teach one who will develop a swing as sweet as Ken Griffey Jr.  It’s a one in a million shot, but it’s worth the effort.

A girl has to start somewhere, and even if you don’t ever make Swan Lake, at the very least it should be worth something to know you had someone who loved you enough to drive a couple of hours to see you try.

I rather like the ballet.

 

Weeds

butterfly

The softness of twilight covers a multitude of sin.

A sunset ride through the open fields and along the woods trails.  Early spring growth hiding the depredations of winter.  A downed tree here.  Broken branches there.  Saplings leaned over.  Grass already knee-high, dappled with scatterlings of milkweed and thistle and flowers I cannot name.

My mount does not balk, but I must stop often to clear the path.  Unlike her namesake, she is reckless and her footing unsure.  Her name is Kawasaki.

These paths were clear last fall.  The grass was short.  My heart sighs.

Mother despises what we call neatness.  She will not tolerate it.  Tenderness is not in her vocabulary.

Establish.  Nurture.  Destroy with violence.

The Redhead despises what we call chaos.  She will tolerate, but not quietly.

Maintain neatness with equal violence.  Bush hog and drip-torch.

I will clear trails, fully aware that I will do so again and again and again, ’til death do us part.  Whether she or Mother, it matters not.

I will mow the fields even though I know what hides the rattlesnake also feeds the butterfly.

Because a thousand disappointed butterflies are better than one disappointed Redhead.

A Good Cup of Coffee

A Good Cup of Coffee

I made a semi-annual visit to my cardiologist a few days ago.  Semi-annual because my family tree has heart-rot, and this fellow has made it his personal challenge that I not die on his watch, at least of any cardio-related illnesses.  I sometimes think if I got hit by a truck it would take some of the pressure off him.

The worst part of these exams is the prerequisite blood work.  They are “fasting labs,” meaning that I am not supposed to let anything other than water cross my lips after midnight.  Doable except for one small detail:  they always schedule the blood-letting mid-morning.

I have mentioned here before that I am an early riser.  I can skip breakfast, but I absolutely require one thing.  Coffee.  Hot, black, strong, and now.

I always survive until the appointed time, but let’s just say I am not good company.

Blood-suckers satisfied, I always treat myself.  I head for the nearest Waffle House.

I was working on my second cup, waiting for a fried egg sandwich (take that cardiologist), when I glanced at the parking lot.  A lady was hobbling toward the door, struggling to manage the trip on crutches.  Her knee-high cast looked brand new.

I got up and opened the door for her.

“Oh, thank you so much.  I’m really scuffling to get used to these things.”

I told her it was no problem at all.  Glad to help.

I know a little about navigating with crutches.  Surgeries on both feet and a knee.  My first go-round was interrupted when I fell down some stairs.  Broke my right wrist and my left elbow.  The surgeon said, “you are not supposed to go down stairs on crutches.”

Thanks Doc., I kind of figured that out.

I helped the lady get seated at a booth and went back to my coffee.

When I finished my third cup and sandwich, I went to the front to settle-up.

“It’s been taken care of, sir.”

It didn’t register.  I just stood there.  I think I even offered the money again.

“No, your bill has already been paid.”

Dumbfounded, I was nearly outside before it registered.

“You didn’t need to do that ma’am.”

“My pleasure.  Now you have a blessed day.”

I did have a blessed day, mostly from a renewed faith that there are still some very nice folks hobbling along in an increasingly self-centered, broken society.

They say that coffee isn’t good for you.

I think they are wrong.  It was good for me.