One Word

I do not write about politics in Words Not On Paper.  I could, and I would have more readers — a lot more than you few who spend your valuable time reading the little stories you find here.  But there are plenty of other places you can go if you want to read someone’s opinion.  Head on over to some social media site or watch television “news” if that sort of thing floats your boat.

That being stated, I want to make an observation on the video we have all seen.

I watched it three times before I caught something I had somehow previously missed.  Just one word:  “momma.”

At that point, I knew he was going to because he knew he was going to die.

It is more common than you might think for that one word to be among a person’s last.

I stood by my grandmother’s bed in a hospital in Birmingham, AL back in 1983.  She was 87 years old and near death, but I had not lived enough life at that point to understand that it was going to our last time together.  I bumbled around, attempting to engage her in some sort of conversation.  Things like “Hey granny, remember that time we did this or went there?”  She just listened, expressionless.

After a long silence a remarkable thing happened.  A big tear rolled down her cheek and she said, “I want my momma.”

I puzzled over that for years.  Why would she say such a thing?  She had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Her mother had been dead 30 years, and it had been over 70 since she had been in her care.

Then a few years ago I read Shelby Foote’s remarkable historical narrative The Civil War.

Foote dispelled any notion of Romanticism about that war.  Most of it was fought in an old-fashioned way, in which two armies faced each other in parallel lines and charged over open ground until one or both retreated and fell back.  But the carnage was unimaginable because the weapons were not old-fashioned:  accurate repeating rifles, metal bullets, and heavy artillery.

The battles ended at sunset.  If the contest had yet to be decided, both armies regrouped and waited for dawn on either side of the killing field, with hundreds or even thousands of casualties lying in the dark between them.  The wounded and dead, intertwined and stacked like cord wood.

The historical record reveals that many of the dying cried out through the long night.  The one word heard more than any other was “momma.”

I do not know if there is a rational explanation for this.  Grown men and old women, all seeking comfort from a single word.

Perhaps the dying see what the living cannot.  Death standing there with a crooked smile and stinking breath, his bony fingers reaching toward them.  Then they need to hold momma’s hand.  To seek comfort from the one who put a Band-Aid on their skinned knee or put a cool washcloth on their forehead when they had a fever.  The one who always said, “Hush baby, it is going to be alright.” Because it always was alright.

The mystical power of one word.

Rest in peace.  In those last moments I hope you saw your momma.

Needful Things

dry garden

Steps slow and measured.  Bare feet in the furrow, wisps of chalky dust trailing.  Tomorrow’s dew will settle the powder, but only until the sun peels the ridgetop. Until then a visage of singular puffs, the prints fossilized afarensis along some ancient Saharan riverbed.

The rows 36 apart, predestined and foreordained by the plow.  The seed carefully placed one to a finger-shaped hole. One to two inches deep, three to six between.  Covered by a little pat, the tenderness almost sentimental, usually reserved for the head of a good dog or a beloved grandchild.

Heart of a poet, not a farmer.

Daybreak after planting, the sky cracked-open.  Four inches in a matter of a few hours.  I stood in the midst and watched, a visage of some forlorn and demented scarecrow in a sea of swirling black feathers.  Sweat-soaked in the eve, rain-soaked in the morn.

The rows held fast, anchored to the earth by some unseen force.  Perhaps or perchance through a shaman’s trance, lips moving inaudible prayers or curses into a turbulent sky.

A week passed.  Two weeks.  Now three.

The sky sealed by a celestial signet.  Heat building each day, stacked like strata viewed bottom-up.

Such tender shoots.  Promises of ears, pods, and succulents.  Colors not green but off-green, wilting and folding inward like ancient scrolls exposed after centuries of desiccation.

Tomorrow dawn I stretch the hose.  Waters of survival only, creating a mirage of an oasis.  Temporal relief.  Water from pipes stave-off, but they do not nourish.  Treated is for human, rain for plants.

Sunday morning shower, rinse, repeat.

Odds makers book Monday at six in ten, but never wager against the home team, especially in Alabama.

I look heavenward and wait, my nursery of babes waiting to be suckled.

A Fish Tale

bass

I caught a fish when I was a kid.  A big fish.  A really big fish.

I caught him, but not in the sense you might think.

I am not a fisherman by any stretch of the imagination.  I have landed some fish over a lifetime, but barely enough to mention.  If fishing is a gift, then I must have been standing in the wrong line that day.

Truth is, I am a lousy fisherman. I once stood between two men on the State Pier at Gulf Shores, Alabama.  I had the same gear and bait and fished in the exactly the same manner.  Both were pulling them in as fast as their bait hit the water.  Me?  Not a nibble.

It was not from lack of effort.  I grew up just down the road from a small lake where I fished as a kid.  Mostly with a cane pole, but later with a small rod and a “Zebco 202” reel, which was the ‘70’s version of a poor man’s gear.  I would occasionally catch a few, but not enough to have a decent fish fry.

My frustration must have shown, because one day my dad said “You really want to catch some fish?  I’ll show you how.”

He went down to our old shed and returned with a roll of chicken wire.  He cut a piece and fashioned a cylinder about two feet in diameter.  Wired up the back end with a flat piece and made an inverted cone for the other end.  Cut a little door on the top just big enough to stick a hand through.  Tied a cotton rope to it to throw it out and retrieve it.

“Now here’s the secret,” he said.  He hung a little bag made from a nylon stocking from the top.  It was filled with dry dog food. “Fish just love that smell.”

This was how his contraption worked:  a fish pushed its way in through the small end of the cone.  Once in, it could not get back out.

It is called a “fish trap,” and it was illegal in Alabama.

We made a path through the woods from our house to the back end of the lake.  Cut the bushes back just enough to put the basket in and out.

The next day we went back.  I pulled it in and there were four decent-sized shell crackers.  I was elated.  I could finally catch fish.

I checked the trap every day when I got home from school.  Some days there would be a few, other days none.  I threw them all back, because there was never enough to make a “mess of fish,” which means enough to clean and eat.

One afternoon about two weeks later dad got home early.  “Let’s go down and check the basket.”

When I pulled the basket in there was only one fish.  A really big fish.  A ten-pound Largemouth Bass.

I’ll never forget the sight of my daddy reaching down into that basket, grabbing that big bass by the mouth, and throwing him as far as he could back into the woods so that he couldn’t flop back in the water.

We headed to the taxidermist to have him mounted, but first we stopped off at the local newspaper to have my picture made holding up that big bass.  The caption something like “Local Boy Snags Trophy Bass.”

But there was a small problem.  I did not catch it.  I trapped it.

I had to think up a tale.

When the paper came out, everyone congratulated me, but that was always followed by the inevitable fishing questions: “Where did you catch it?  What time of day?  What bait did you use?” How did you land it?”

And the answers were “At my secret fishing spot, just before sunset, with a purple artificial worm.  I put it down nice and easy next to a snag about three feet off the bank.  He hit it fast.  Took me 15 minutes to land him.  He put up a fight like you wouldn’t believe.”

The story got a little better every time I told it.  Before long it was good enough to be in Field and Stream magazine.

Funny thing was, the more I told that story the more I started to believe it myself.  Whenever I told it I could feel the pull as it leapt out of the water.  See the glistening colors framed against that orange sunset.  Sense the fear that it would break my line before I landed it.

If I had a dollar for every time I told that lie you wouldn’t be reading this, because I’d be spending all my time fishing for trout in the stream behind my cabin in Montana.

I kept that mounted bass on my wall wherever I lived for at least 30 years.  I told my story every time a visitor admired it.

Eventually the mount became so yellowed and cracked that I threw it away.  Or maybe the Redhead did.  She never really liked it to begin with.

So, the tale finally came to an end.

But before you go, hang on a second.  Did I ever tell you about the time I caught a monster bass when I was just ten years old?  Man, did he ever put up a fight.  You see I was fishing right about sunset one afternoon…”

The Warrior

benny pix

The warrior is slain.

Once one of the most feared men in Vietnam, he now rests in Arlington National Cemetery with other men of valor.

You watched “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper.”  Now read the tale of Bennie Adkins.

I give you the condensed version.*

I met Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Bennie Adkins five years ago at a gathering of about 30 senior citizens when I received an assignment to do a story about him for Lake Martin Living magazine. After a 43-year-old paperwork snafu, he had finally been awarded the  Medal of Honor for Valor in Vietnam.  His story was about to go public, and I had the privilege to be one of the first to hear and write it.

I knew nothing about him or of the story he would tell that day.  Nothing about his appearance gave me any indication of what he had done so long ago.  Although at 83 he still stood ramrod straight like a soldier, his demeanor was that of a kindly old grandfather. He was diminutive, the kind of man you would expect to see surrounded by his grandchildren at the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

As he began to tell his story, I realized the sort of man I had been privileged to meet.

Adkins enlisted in in the Army in 1956. He was initially assigned a desk job as a clerk typist, but he knew that job did not suit his personality.  He applied for and was accepted into the Special Forces. After two years of intensive training, he was ordered to Vietnam.

After some plain clothes Intelligence work in his first tour, Atkins was assigned to replace a wounded man in Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group in the treacherous A Shau Province. The little camp was behind enemy lines in a jungle so dense that it was only accessible by air. His assignment, along with 16 other American soldiers, was to train 420 south Vietnamese civilians to fight the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC).

He thought it would be an easy job, but he soon found out his “trainees” were a collection of convicts – thieves and criminals from prisons in Saigon who had been released and pressed into service.

The first 100 days at A Shau were uneventful – just occasional sniper fire from a passing VC patrol. But that changed when a captured soldier revealed that an NVA Division (4,000 men) were planning to attack the little camp as soon as the weather prohibited U.S. air support.

That attack began in the early morning hours of March 9, 1966. What followed was 36 hours of relentless fighting.

It was the stuff of which movies are made. Adkins fighting, carrying wounded men to the rear, and returning to the front to fight again.  Back and forth all those hours, wounded and bleeding, through exploding shells and rifle fire.

Air support forces made several attempts to defend the camp, but a gunship and an Evac. helicopter were shot down before they could land.

The situation went from bad to worse when many of the trainees decided to “switch sides” during the battle. Adkins and the six remaining Americans then faced fire from inside the camp as well as out.

When it became apparent that the battle was lost and the camp would be overrun, orders arrived to destroy all documents and abandon the post.

The Army sent 18 helicopters to evacuate the survivors. Ten were shot down.  When the remaining ships arrived, Adkins ran back and forth between the battlefield and the helicopters, continuing to fight while retrieving comrades. When he arrived with the final American soldier, he found that they had missed the last flight out.

Only two Americans and five indigenous soldiers remained. Out of options, the group retreated into the jungle and spent 48 agonizing hours evading NVA troops.

Adkins recalled that the first night in the jungle was the hardest of the entire ordeal. The seven survivors were surrounded, forced to huddle in silence and wait for help.

He spent years wondering why the enemy forces did not just rush them and “finish the job.”  After the war he learned the reason:  a tiger was also stalking his little band of bloody men, and the NVA troops were afraid of the tiger.

CSM Adkins and his men were finally rescued by helicopter 72 hours after the battle began.  All were wounded. Adkins bore 18 separate bullet and shrapnel wounds.

He eventually recovered and did another tour. After that war he accepted missions in other locations around the world.  Most are still classified.

CSM Adkins finally retired from the Army in 1978.  He came home to Opelika, Alabama and went to college.  Earned several degrees and opened an accounting business. Taught some classes at Southern Union Community College and Auburn University.

He dressed in plain clothes, but he was always a warrior.

Recently, the President of the United States remarked that “we now face a war with an invisible enemy.”

CSM Adkins met that enemy on a hospital battlefield in east Alabama.

I marvel at the irony.  The warrior who could not be killed by 4,000 men died from a little virus that many still claim is “not as bad as the flu.”

Rest in Peace, CSM Adkins.  You earned your stripes.

 

*I claim no rights to this story.  For a full (and better) account of the life of CSM Bennie Adkins, read “A Tiger Among Us:  A Story of Valor in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.”

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.’