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.

 

Faraway (So Close)

Over the last couple of days the news has been dominated by the death of a famous athlete who was killed (along with his daughter and several other people) in a helicopter crash. There will be tributes, candlelight vigils and ribbons over the next few months.  It was a tragic loss of life, to be sure, but it’s a celebrity story and Americans are enamored with celebrity.

I read further down the page until I see the photo above.

Angel also died this weekend, when she was shot and killed by the police in a small Alabama town.  I don’t blame the cop who pulled the trigger, because she started firing as soon as the cruisers rolled up in the driveway at the trailer park.

Almost like she wanted to get shot.

The story indicated that Angel had one previous arrest for “obstructing governmental operations.”  Neighbors said that she had “mental problems.”  Others alleged drug use.  One neighbor was quoted as saying that he “hoped this meant peace and quiet would return to the neighborhood.”

I read each of the 35 comments below the electronic news story.  All political.  Bad cops.  Racial  implications.  Alabama politicians.  The mental health system. President Trump(?!?).  I read on, expecting someone to try and weave the Alabama and Auburn football rivalry into the commentary, but no one figured out how.  This the back-and-forth irrelevant nonsense of electronic anonymity.  The downfall of civility in America.

Just one comment:  “So sad.”

Indeed.

I know nothing of Angel’s story, but I cannot get that photo out of my mind.  She was younger than she looked, but still very pretty.  I am drawn to her eyes.  I magnify the photo as large as the computer will allow.

I see it.  Loneliness.  Darkness.  Hopelessness.  Sadness.  A brokenness that I am not sure can be fixed.  It’s a long, slow death spiral into the ground.  I see it because I’ve looked into eyes like that before, up close.

I’ve heard it said that things aren’t remembered if they aren’t written down.  I think that refers to people too.

Here are a few lines about Angel.  May she rest in peace.

 

 

 

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.