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.

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.