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.

Moonstruck

moonstruck

A friend of mine wrote a short piece about a Parhelion, which I had never heard of.  You should read it here.

In our subsequent email conversation about the phenomenon, she wrote that she was surprised that her local newspaper didn’t have a photo.

I’m not.

I’d wager that nobody down at the paper saw it.

I don’t think anyone looks at the sky much anymore.  They’re too busy looking at their phone.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a thirtysomething man out on a timber yard.  I happened to notice that a full moon was rising.

“Look at that,” I said.  “It is going to be bright tonight.  My dogs will bark all night if I don’t put them up.”

“Wow,” he said.  “I didn’t know you could see the moon in the daytime.”

I didn’t know what to make of that.  Still don’t.

We weren’t in New York or L.A.  This is Alabama, where we still have plenty of sky to go ’round.  This young man is well-educated and spends a lot of his working life outdoors.

Apparently he doesn’t look up much.

A lot of people think we are living in the greatest time in history.  I reckon there is some truth in that notion.  Technology has information at our fingertips, 24/7.

Still, I can’t help but wonder where things are headed when people stop looking at the sky.

The Library on Main

library

I travel some, mostly to small-town Alabama.  Whenever I’m early for an appointment, I get off the bypass and head for the old downtown.  I like to park the pick-up and walk, get a feel for what was 50 or 60 years ago.

The bypass is what is across the South.  Big Box and fast food.  Chain stores and strip malls.  The New South, born in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, when the state government and highway department decided that the modern traveler should not be forced to slow down to pass through the narrow streets and traffic lights that were the downtown.

Character and charm were the first casualties.  In modern Alabama you could head south from Huntsville to Mobile, fall asleep in the passenger seat and wake up three hours later in Anytown, Alabama.  Your first question will be “Where are we?”

Little towns across Alabama were built along the railroads.  The depot was the focal-point, where farmers brought beeves and produce.  Bailed cotton and yellow pine boards were loaded onto rail cars and shipped to the big city.  The shops on Main Street were just down from the depot.  Small stores where town folk bought everything they needed.  Feed store and mercantile.  Dress shop and apothecary.  Restaurant and Five-and-Dime.  Movie theater and gas station.

All gone now.  Shops require shoppers.  Shoppers require money.  Money requires good jobs.  Good jobs require that someone produce something.

Production jobs — the sawmill, the cotton mill, the garment factory, the small farm.  Closed-up and moved-on.  Now big corporations and banks run the economy, and what’s left is on the bypass, the “service sector,” where people flip the burgers, man the counters and stock the shelves.  Unload the trucks that transport the goods that the railroad once moved.

Still, all across the state there are attempts to bring back a semblance of what was, to re-vitalize the old downtown.  Main is repaved with brick or cobblestone.  Sidewalks are refurbished.  Decorative light posts and flower beds line the narrow streets.

Banks are eager to lend to a few local investors, those with just enough money to start and a dream of owning their own business.  It’s a win-win for the bank.  Collect interest on the loans, then call the note when revenue can’t cover the payments.  Do this again and again, as long as there are dreamers to be found.

The little Main Street I last walked is no different from a lot of the others.  Mostly empty storefronts with new facades.

I stopped at the “Southern Grounds Coffee Shop,” a tastefully decorated establishment that was empty, save me and the nice young man behind the counter.  Southern Grounds  offered all the brews you can buy in the chain store:  lattes, frappuccinos and expressos.  Flavored concoctions and iced-things about which I hadn’t a clue.  I ordered a simple cup of black coffee and was directed to a pot on a counter at the side of the store.  “Medium Roast” was all they had that day.  Good enough for me.

A few other stores down the sidewalk.  “Robyn’s,” where you can get your hair styled, and two clothing stores, one up-scale, the other consignment.  Both have names ending in “Kloset,” an indication that one lady-investor is both trendy and “all-in” on revitalization.

I began to feel discouraged about the future success of the project when I stumbled across an empty lot with something that looked like an over-sized bird house on a post.  It had a glass front and a hand-lettered sign that read “Borrow-Read-Return-Donate.  Future site of the Thomasville Public Library.”

There were 15 or so books, most unremarkable, but I noticed a paperback copy of Buffalo Gals, a Larry McMurty novel based on the life of Calamity Jane.  It’s no The Last Picture Show or Lonesome Dove, but it is a good read from a man who I consider to be one of America’s best writers.

I was suddenly struck by the irony.  McMurtry’s novels are often set in dying small towns, and his son James (a very good folk-singer) has a lot to say on that subject too.

But there was also this:  Larry McMurty’s personal library contains an estimated 28,000 books.  Someone once asked James about his childhood home and he reportedly said “It was like growing up in a damn library.”

The book is a talisman for this Main Street.  It shall be.  It must be.

Years from now, if I manage to stay on this side of the grass, I’ll come back to this town.  Park the truck and walk down crowded sidewalks.  Look through glass storefronts at happy customers with pockets full of cash money just itching to be spent.  Then I’ll head over to the library and amble through aisle after aisle of book-lined shelves.

I’ll be looking for one book — a weathered, dog-eared copy of Buffalo Gals.

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.