The Art of the Deal

ford

Somebody told me this story years ago.  I do not know if it is true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.

There once was a forester who lived in the little timber-town of Grove Hill, Alabama.  As you might guess, most foresters drive pick-up trucks, and he was no exception.  He had two, one that he used for work in the woods during the week and one that he drove mostly to town on Saturday and to the Grove Hill First Baptist Church on Sunday.

The work truck was kind of beat-up.  Some dents and scratches on the outside and some stains of unknown origin on the upholstery.  This is typical of forester pickups.  Which is why I will mention to you at this point in the story that you should never buy a used pickup from a forester.  They will clean it up real nice inside and out and make it look good, but trust me, they have got about all the ‘goody’ out of it or it would not be for sale.

But I digress.

This other truck, the Sunday-go-to-meeting one, was in pristine condition.  Although it was nearly 20 years old, he had treated it with kid gloves, so much so that he wouldn’t even let his rather large wife Nelda eat her ice cream cone in it on the way home from Sunday dinner at the Dairy Bar, a matter that she still holds ill-feelings towards him to this very day.

Although he loved that truck, his neighbor down the road a piece had recently purchased a brand new ’72 Ford with air conditioning.  It was the first pickup he had ever seen with that feature, and it caused him to covet.  Ironically, the preacher at F.B.C. Grove Hill had preached on not coveting your neighbor’s something or other just that past Sunday.  He could not remember all the details of the sermon, because truthfully, he was half-asleep through most of it.  He just knew that coveting was something he ought not do.

The very next Saturday he drove up the road to the Ford dealership in Thomasville.  And there she sat – the pickup of dreams—an orange F-150 with pearl white side panels.  Air conditioning so cold that he might even consider letting Nelda have that cone on the way home from dinner, even in August.

The dealer put the hard sales pitch on him, but he remained stoic.  He had been up and down the road quite a few times over the course of his career as a forester and he knew how to trade, be it timber or trucks.  He knew he could buy that new truck at the price he wanted to pay, but the problem was that he was not going to get a fair price on his trade-in.  After all, his truck was immaculate.  He was not going to just give it away.

So, he did what all country folk did back in the day.  He parked the truck out in his yard with a “For Sale” sign that he had bought at the Thomasville Western Auto right after he left the dealership.  He did not post a price on the sign, but he knew what he would take — $500 cash money.

Now at this point in the story you may have noticed that the forester has not spoken. There is a reason for that.  He did not talk much because he stuttered.

If I may pause here, let me say that I am quite sure that I just lost a few readers (particularly the young ones) because I just wrote a word that is probably no longer politically correct.  I am sorry about that, I truly am.  But the word “stutter” was still a perfectly good word in 1972, so some newer phrase like “speech impairment” would be out of place in the chronological sense since it did not exist then.   Besides, ‘stutter’ is still a solid word.  A word like that is called “onomatopoeia.”  Look that up, youngsters.

Now as I said, the forester stuttered.  Badly.  It was a condition he was born with, but a kindly second grade schoolteacher, Mrs. Pope, had taught him a technique to deal with it.  Whenever he had to speak (and he tried to keep this at a minimum) he was to take a long pause, look at the person’s eyebrows, and concentrate on the sentence before he attempted to say it.  “Don’t flinch,” she said.  “Stay in control.”

He did not know what the word “flinch” meant because it was not on his second-grade vocabulary list, but he got the gist of it.  “Gist” was on the second-grade vocabulary list at Grove Hill Elementary.

He used this technique for years with great success.  For example, when Nelda was ready to leave the Dairy Bar and go home to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon on the couch watching “Hawaii Five-O” reruns (Jack Lord, now there’s a good-looking man, she’d think), she would say “Horace, let’s go home.”

And he would say “…..Nelda…..Finish…..your…..cone.”

This took a great deal of concentration.  His brow would furrow.  His eyes squint.  His lips thin.  Anyone who did not know him might confuse all that facial contortion for anger or at least agitation, but it was nothing of the sort.  It was, as I have already mentioned, simply a mental device Mrs. Pope had taught him to overcome his affliction.

About a week after he had parked the truck in the yard, gleaming in the south Alabama sunshine, a city fellow from Mobile happened to drive by and see it.  He couldn’t slow his ’69 Mustang down fast enough to stop, so he drove on to the first place he could turn around (which happened to be the driveway to the Johnson place about a half-mile up the road).  He was not French, but he considered himself a connoisseur of Fords of any kind, and he recognized a Sunday-go-to-meeting truck at first glance.

He hurried to the door and knocked.  From somewhere inside he heard a woman shriek “Horace, will you answer the dadgum door.  You know I am right in the middle of my show.  I think this is the one where Steve says ‘Book ‘em, Danno.’

Truth be told she was not going to get up for Horace if Jesus himself was at the door.  She was still aggravated about having to eat her cone faster than she would have liked.

The city-fellow wanted that truck.  A Baptist might even say he ‘coveted it.’  He started nervously yapping before Horace had even stepped off the porch.

“That’s a fairly nice truck to be so old,” he said.  “What will you take for her?”

Horace just looked at him.  He wanted to say $500, but he just stood there, trying to get the words out.

After about 30 seconds of silence, the city fellow decided to make the first parley.  “How about $250?”

Horace just looked at him.  He concentrated.  Stared at his eyebrows just like Mrs. Pope had taught him.  But before he could counter the man said “okay, how about $400.”

Again, silence.

The city fellow was starting to sweat.  To be fair, everyone in Grove Hill, Alabama is either currently sweating or starting to sweat.

“Okay,” he said.  “How about $700.  That’s my final offer.”

Horace said “Suh…suh…suh…sold.”

Now as you may know, most stories are “cautionary tales,” which means they have been written to advise us ‘what to do’ or more likely ‘what not to do’ in any given situation.  As such, there is always a moral of the story.

This is, indeed, that kind of story.

You, dear reader, may be scratching your head at this point.  There are, after all, several possibilities.  Which should you choose?

One is “the first person to name a price always loses in a business transaction.”  This of course is true.

Another is “Be wary of buying a used pickup truck from a forester.”  This one I have already mentioned.  It rings just as true at the end of the story as it did near the beginning.

A third might be, seek out a kindly second grade teacher like Mrs. Pope if you have an affliction.  She may have an answer that will serve you well for a lifetime.  Also valid.

But the real moral of the story, as I see it, is much simpler and will be easier for you to follow as you travel life’s backroads.

It is this: “Never buy a used pickup truck from a stuttering forester on a Sunday afternoon in Grove Hill, Alabama.  You’ll end up getting skinned.”

Consider yourself warned.  Or at least ‘cautioned.’

The Good Life

for Molly

garden

If you live long enough you gain an appreciation for those who came before you.

When COVID-19 hit and everyone was advised to practice “social distancing,” I was indifferent. “Social distancing?” I invented it. Been practicing it for years.

Then came “shelter in place” and “work from home.”

Unlike most, I could not have been happier. Stay home? Well “please don’t throw me in the briar patch Br’er Fox.”  I packed my possibles and headed to our farm.

I take liberties with the word “farm.”  Not the image the word conjures. Really just woods and a few open acres. The crops are trees and wildlife, not corn and livestock.

Finally, a chance for the good life. The life of my ancestors. A life for which I was surely born.

Now to be clear, I do not have an upper-class pedigree. I did the research. My kin were Irish immigrants and poor white sharecroppers. No royal sap in the family tree. Mostly poor folks who eked out a living with whatever they had on hand.

But I had more.  The pandemic did not take me by surprise. The farmhouse was fully stocked before the initial panic hit. While many rushed to the stores, I just sat back and watched from a distance. I am, after all, a smart man (just ask the Redhead and she will tell you “oh yes, he certainly thinks he’s a smart man”). I am forward-looking. A visionary even. I was never a Boy Scout, but I lived their motto — “Be prepared.”

I had food. I had medicine. I had gas and diesel. Masks, antibacterial wipes, and toilet paper to spare.

I might have even had a gun or two.

I also had creeks for water, trees for firewood, and wild animals for meat.

But most importantly of all, I had seeds for a garden.

I was dug-in like an Alabama tick. Ready for the long haul.

The first three weeks were blissful. I was finally able to get my work done. Almost no calls, no emails, and no visits from anyone to break my chain of thought.

My plan was executed to perfection. I put in my office hours, then headed outside to take leisurely walks and tend my tomato plants.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning I climbed aboard the big John Deere and plowed and planted my garden. It was the same kind of worn-out rocky ground that my ancestors plowed with mules, but no matter.  I could coax that sorry dirt to yield more than they ever dared to dream.

Then came Sunday morning. The storms hit at sunrise. Hail. High winds. Rain by the bucket-load. The lights flickered, then went out.

No worries. I had candles and flashlights with extra batteries. Who needs television or the internet? I had shelves of good books and plenty of paper and pens with which to write.

Paradise.

That night I laid down in sweet solitude. The bedroom windows were open, and the light breeze and the dripping rain the only sounds. My sleep was deep and filled with contented, peaceful dreams.

Monday morning, I decided to take a stroll to survey my kingdom.

Trees down. Trails blocked.  Garden mostly washed away. Creeks out of the banks. Dead battery on the Deere.

Rugged independence? Gone.

That night I blew out the candles and lay in the darkness again. You know you really cannot appreciate true darkness until you are way back in the woods with no lights on a cloudy night. I struggled to find sleep with my troubled thoughts.

As my mind raced through the stillness of that long night it finally hit me. There was nothing romantic about the way my ancestors lived. They could not run to the grocery store when the crops washed away. No cash to buy more seed or supplies or even pay back their shares. No hiding from a pandemic. If the Spanish flu did not kill their children, then cholera just might.

I understand them now. Why they left the “good life” for jobs in the cotton mill towns. Why they traded idyllic farm living for a hot, dusty job where a man might lose a hand in a second or his lungs to the lint in a matter of a few years.

I have no worries. I can start again. I have the means to replant the garden, and the grocery store is only five miles away. I still have my masks and wipes, so I will probably stay untouched by the virus, at least for a while.

I added something to my supplies. Respect for my ancestors.

The “good life” is all high cotton and buttermilk cornbread when you are playing a role in the theater of your mind.  But when you live off the land to survive it is not all it is cracked-up to be.

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.

Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.

Toughness

summer heat

I spent some time today in the seat of my John Deere, mowing pasture that has been mowed twice and will likely be mowed again before the end of August.  It is hot, dusty work, but I like seat-time because it is think time.  Not worrisome thoughts, just mental meandering through the uncut meadows of my mind.

Today I did some thinking about the heat.  Specifically summer in Alabama.  Not for the faint of heart.

The weather apps I have on my phone and the television weather people advise that it will be 92 degrees at two o’clock but it will actually feel like 105 degrees.

Well thanks for that.  Blesses my heart to know that I should be feeling hotter than I already do.

My thoughts turned to the last few weeks.  I spent my days teaching some young folk a little about forestry and logging.  They are “millennial” or “Gen Xers” or “Gen whatevers.”  I can’t keep up with all the classifications.  I could Google it, but it doesn’t interest me enough to bother with a few key-strokes to even do that.

I thought they were a bit whiny.  Actually, a lot whiny.

“It’s too hot out here.”

“You walk too fast.”

“Can we stop at the store?”

I rather liked that.  I am tough.  They are weak.  Can’t keep pace with the old man.

My generation’s view of the next.  Spoiled.  Can’t take it.  The “I got a trophy for showing  up” generation.  Comes out quickly in the Alabama sun.

The tractor and my mind turn down a new trail.  It’s old ground, but sometimes my thoughts need to cover old ground to be put right.

My daddy worked outside most of his life.  The cars and pick-up trucks he drove never had air conditioning.  So far as I know, he bought the first air conditioner he owned when I was about five, a “window unit” that we ran until bedtime.  Electricity cost money, and we didn’t have an abundance of that.

His daddy was a carpenter who worked outside all of his life.  Had a house with high ceilings and a floor fan with blades roughly the size of a Cessna propeller.

His daddy had no electricity because it hadn’t made it to the country.  High ceilings, shade trees and rain the only respite.

His daddy had nothing.  I have a list of his net worth when he applied for his Confederate pension at age 69.  It included 40 acres, one log cabin, four hogs, a clock, household furniture, and a few farming tools.  Total value $130.  Maybe some shade in the yard.  Hopefully a cool water creek on that 40 or at least not too far away.

Toughness is relative, by summertime heat or any other gauge by which we use to measure.

Supposed to be hot again tomorrow, but I don’t feel so tough tonight.

Psalms

psalms tree

My sacred ground is a little clearing in the bottomland along a creek with no name.  I come here almost every day.  Sometimes I linger a bit.  Others I simply turn back toward a home on the hill.

The tree I call “Psalms.”  A water oak that has clung to the bank of No-Name for at least a hundred years.  Just a sapling when this bottomland was all corn.  Feed for the horses and mules.  A few barrels of meal and some roasting ears.  Maybe some traded to a family of famous bootleggers who still live over the ridge, the last now too old to do anything but piddle around the yard, tending fruit trees and flower beds.

Psalms will lose the battle with gravity one day when a hundred-year flood undercuts the bank.  I hope that I am not alive to see it.

Because this is sacred ground.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Two graves here, each covered with field stone.  One for a companion, a dog that I loved more than most people.  The second a sweet little lady who never was anything but.  I had her put down sixth-months ago, before the suffering of ruined hips became more than she or I could bear.

I have cried four times that I can recall in the last 40 years.  The first when I lost my dad.  The second when I found that some certainties are not.  The third and fourth over these two small graves.  Biblical crying.  Great sobs and blubbering.  Sorrowful moans worthy of sackcloth and ashes.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

He brought her here six years ago, because he is like me and this spot is sacred to him too.  Got down on a knee and asked her to be his wife.  A happy day, the kind that sticks with you forever.  Love that clings tenaciously to the bank of the river of your heart.

I came here today, as I am accustomed to do on a Sunday afternoon.  Two little ones riding along behind me in a pull-cart.  They look at trees and butterflies.  Ask a lot of questions.  Throw rocks and sticks into the creek.  My stony heart smiles.

It is written that an ancient Hebrew put up a stone on his sacred ground, a place where he met with God.

I have no stone, but I have Psalms.

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.