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.

 

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.

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?

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.