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.

A Christmas Day

One Christmas stuck forever in a man’s mind, a memory like an old Polaroid in faded sepia tones.

It was ’65 or ’66.  Small living room in a little white clapboard house on Spring Street.  Hemmed-in by a hospital parking lot on one side and a creek ditch deep enough to hold a train car on the other.

A red cedar Christmas tree in the corner, cut from somebody’s fence row out in the country in a time when folks didn’t mind you doing things like that.  Decorated with a string of popcorn, a lot of tinsel, and some of those big colored lights that appear to be back in fashion.  A few store-bought ornaments, but mostly construction-paper Christmas shapes and candy canes.

Presents under the tree, some wrapped in fancy printed paper, others in simple colored tissue.  A hand-made Christmas stocking hanging from the mantel, just below a wooden Nativity scene.

A boy got up about 4:30, because he could no longer lie still and listen to the mantel clock strike the hour and half hour.  Presents from Santa arranged on the oak floor in front of the tree.  Cowboy hat, gun belt, and two shiny cap-gun six shooters.  A Jellystone Park set complete with Yogi, Boo Boo, and Ranger Smith.  A bag of plastic army soldiers, enough to have his own little Vietnam just like the one he could see on a 12-inch black and white every evening at six.  Other small items, now forgotten.  The Christmas stocking yielded an orange, a few pecans, and a roll of Life Savers.

It was a great year. A BIG haul. Important to a boy in a working-class family in Alabama in the ’60’s.

Why?  Because that was pretty much it for that year, with the exception of a couple of presents on his birthday.

That’s what made a boy think about Christmas all year.

“No’s” and “put it backs” filled the rest of the year.  The boy was a man before he realized the reason — there wasn’t any extra money back then.  Money kept the lights on.  Kept gas in the car to get to work and back.  Kept food in the refrigerator.  Kept up hope that the refrigerator held out another year or two.  Christmas required sacrifice.

Different world now.  A man’s kids never understood.  A man’s grand kids have no chance of understanding.  A single trip to Target can trump that ’60’s Christmas.

But then again, that ’60’s boy had more in his stocking than his parents had on their Christmases.

Don’t misunderstand this little tale.  The man isn’t complaining about his childhood, or bemoaning the prosperity that allowed him to buy gifts for his grandchildren this year that cost more than his daddy made in a month back in ’66.

It’s just a memory a man will replay tonight, as he does every year.  All lights off except for the tree.  Aware of the time going by.  Trying to get that ’66 feeling back.

Here’s to your Christmas memory.  If you don’t have one, make it this year.

Life from the Porch

porch

“This is Catherine Hinds.  Buddy wanted me to call and let you know that he seen a turkey this morning come out across the road from our house, a gobbler, and he went back in the woods going toward your place.  He wanted me to call and tell you.  Seen his beard hanging down.  I thought I’d call and tell you.  This is Catherine Hines and my phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.  It’s uh…What time is it?  It’s 12:03, is what time it is.  Thought I’d call and tell you.  Bye.”

This was on my voicemail last Friday.

Catherine and Buddy are my neighbors.  The live in the next to the last house before the last house on a rutted-up red clay road.

She is 89, he 92.  They are porch-sitters.  Neither can hear well, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with their eyesight.  Nothing comes down that road without notice.

Needless-to-say, I don’t have a security system.  Be a waste of good money.

The last time I stopped and visited (which was way too long ago), we all sat on the porch and talked turkey.  Mostly the lack thereof.  I bemoaned the fact that the wild turkey had disappeared in the last couple of years.  Every Fall for 20 years I watched droves of hens pass through green fields and oak flats as I waited for a glimpse of a deer.  Every Spring, gobbling like thunder on ridges all around.  Now I can’t even find a track.  Buddy, who has lived on this same plot of ground his entire life (except for the War, of course), was just as perplexed.

Thus, the reason for the voicemail — turkey sighting.

The Redhead and I stopped and visited the next day to thank Ms. Catherine for the call.  The ladies chatted while Buddy and I hashed-out our theories about the mysterious turkey decline.

The conversation soon turned to the community.

Catherine said we have new neighbors in the next house back up the road.  They keep to themselves.  Looks like they’re going to be good neighbors.

Wednesday is her “go to town” day.  The grocery store is a good one.  It used to be a Food Town.  Now it’s Renfroe’s, but she said she still calls it Food Town because that was the name for so many years.  She knows everybody that works there by name and they know her too.  It’s not a big store, but they have everything you need.  Meat’s good too.

Buddy said the timber on the Nelson place just up the road was recently cut.  Billy Dennis cut it. Buddy knew his daddy.  He was a fine man.  Lived about three miles up the road.  Died about ten years ago.  The lady who owns that land now lives up north somewhere.  She was a Boone, you know, before she got married.  This country used to be just slam eat-up with Boones.  She stopped last time she was down.  Wanted some red berries off that bush out back.  Told her that she could have the whole damn thing if she wanted to dig it up.  Her land, now, they sure skinned that place, but Billy said they were going to set it back out or seed it with pines or however they do that stuff next Winter.  He couldn’t remember it looking so “clean” since they used to farm it.

This goes on without pause the next thirty minutes, a seemingly random conversation, but really a chain of thoughts, each link leading to the next topic, all within a few miles from the house.

We eventually excuse ourselves.  Our dogs are in the truck and we need to “get on down the road.”

Buddy said what he always does.  “You’ll stop again next time you pass.”

We have to pass to get to our house.

I tell the Redhead that Buddy and Catherine have a better life than us.

She doesn’t understand my thinking, can’t see how I could believe such a thing.  Just two old folks living in a little house on the same plot of ground for the last sixty years.

I see it differently.  No computer.  No cellphone.  No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest.  No Fox, CNN, MSNBC.  No Left, Right, Center.  No Trump, Peolsi, Biden, Bernie.  No Venezuela, China, North Korea.  Not much interest in the workings of the world more than a few miles from home.

Really not much interest in anything that can’t be seen from the porch.

All they have is each other.  It’s their world, and that suits them just fine.

I think that’s about as good as life can get.

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.