Saturday, September 11, 2010

It's Just a Song

I wish I could have taken my friend, Terry, on a cross-country trip in a private jet and he could have taken me for a ride in the cab of his locomotive.

Maybe he could have been there that night in 2000 when I was flying back to Washington from San Jose in the company jet, exhausted after four long days of merger planning. Too tired to sleep, I worked on my PC until I stared out the window into the night about 2:00 a.m. and noticed the lights of a small town just south of us. I glanced at the navigation screen on the seat back and was surprised to see that it was Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where Terry and I went to high school.

That would have initiated a long discussion of the things we did and the people we knew growing up there and eased the remainder of the flight into Dulles. A long, happy discussion, no doubt.

Terry and I fished Casey Creek in western Kentucky a few weeks back. Though the temperatures were near triple digits that week, the creek, fed by cold spring waters and completely shaded by large trees along its banks, felt at least ten degrees cooler. Like air conditioning. We didn’t even break a sweat.

We chatted a while with two guys who had somehow driven their small car through the woods and parked on the gravel stream bed. They sat on folding chairs maybe ten feet from their car with its open trunk lid and seemed to have fished the same empty pool for hours.

We got our bearings and decided to fish downstream, beyond the highway bridge, because the guys told us that upstream the water had never even been stocked. That's fisherman talk for "we're heading upstream where the big fish are, you boys should head downstream to stay out of our way".

The pool under the bridge looked a tad deep for wet wading, so Terry and I decided to walk back up to the road, cross to the other side and find a way down the bank. The fenced-in pastures on either side of the creek downstream from the road made that difficult, but there was a rather steep path down to the creek right next to the bridge. Terry struck out ahead and found a rope that someone had left, with knots placed every couple of feet, tied to the bridge's guard rail to help with the descent.

I was concerned about Terry making it safely down the bank, given his advanced age, but he made it without a hitch. I, on the other hand, slipped and fell on my ass, but I was able to hold my fly road in the air and avoid damaging it.

You know you're a true fly fisherman when you fall and, on the way down, you worry more about your fly rod than your hip.

Terry stepped first into the cold water, turned around and smiled at me and said, "Oh, you're going to like this."

I cast a dry fly with a nymph dropper near a log that had fallen into the stream, the shallow water cold even in mid-August. I stared intently at the fly, saw some movement and set the hook with my stripping hand.

Damn! You must’ve seen that fish open its mouth. How did you set the hook so fast? I didn’t see any movement at all.”

“I was watching the dry,” I told him as I reeled in the small fish. "I saw it move."

“Yeah, well if you focus any harder when you go to set the hook you’re gonna rip that fish’s lips plum off.”

Last winter, Terry sent me a photograph of a barn surrounded by a snow covered field and the bluest sky I had ever seen. It was just a barn in a field somewhere near a railroad track in the Midwest, but it was stunningly beautiful and it reminded me of our time in Kentucky. I imagined Terry, on a typical workday for CSX, treading frozen ground in heavy work boots and wearing insulated coveralls, taking the picture with the new iPhone that “his girls” had given him as a present, and then getting back to the job at hand.

He has an eye for simple, beautiful, earthy things, a good glass of bourbon, a sweet country song, old friends, or a winter sky that a lot of us would simply take for granted. And, he'd give you the shirt off his back.

Terry and I have known each other since dirt. We've been friends for fifty years. My grandparents and his foster parents were close friends before dirt. They’d get together after high school basketball games (both men coached basketball) and we’d play together in Terry's bedroom while they talked, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee in the living room.

Terry is country as a green onion, to borrow his expression, and you can’t listen to him talk without smiling. It isn’t that he talks like a country boy (he does), it’s his expressions. Like the time he asked Herky to help him move a heavy exercise bike out the way, but Herk couldn’t lift his end.

“Herky,” Terry told him with a smirk, “I swear, you don’t even have a place where muscles ought to be.”

Three years older than me, Terry always seemed happy to have me around and he treated me like a peer. It didn’t matter if he was nine and I was six or he was 19 and I was 16.

That age difference worked to my advantage in high school, when he got a drivers license long before I did. He’d drive me around in his bright red Plymouth Valiant, the model with a push-button automatic transmission on the dash, that we called “Elvira”. He also had a cool little Yamaha motorcycle.

When we were younger, we liked to play his small basketball board game that used little spring-loaded levers to toss a ping pong “basketball” through a small, wire hoop. When I had kids of my own, I bought them the game, too, though it was never really a threat to replace Nintendo's Super Mario World. When we were older, Terry and I played countless real basketball games in my driveway.

Terry’s foster parents eventually moved from Dawson Springs to Elizabethtown and a few years later, when a job opened up, Terry’s foster father, Aubrey, suggested that my grandfather, Bradley, apply for it. He got the position and after a few years bought a house across the street from Aubrey on Perry Avenue. That’s where we lived during my high school years and Terry lived right across the street.

For the next four or five years, before I left for college at UK, we spent nearly every day together. We both got part-time jobs at the Ramada Inn near the Western Kentucky Parkway.

Terry was not only three years older, he was a lot stronger. He played on our high school baseball team and he was tough as nails. But, he also played trumpet in the school band and wrote songs.

He still does. He played guitar for more than a decade in a band called Up Country. He writes great songs, funny ones like A Whole Lot Longer and bittersweet tunes like It’s Just a Song. I keep them on my iPod.

He works with artists from Nashville, writing songs with them on his front porch over a glass of Woodford Reserve and recording them in his basement.

One day in high school, I was talking with my friend and college roommate, John, and he made a strange statement out of the blue.

“Terry,” he asserted, “is not going to take up for you in a fight just because the two of you are from Dawson Springs.”

Wondering where the comment had come from, I smiled and said quietly, “John, that’s a theory you never want to test.”

I never did figure out why he had raised the issue, but a few weeks later when the three of us were together, John raised it again.

“John, if you can whip my ass,” Terry responded, “I’ll shake your hand and call you a friend. . . but you can’t whip my ass. I whipped Johnny Thompson’s ass and that boy was muscled up like a bear.”

John smiled and changed the subject.

Terry had a great old beagle named Dinger when we were in high school. Dinger went everywhere we went. He was always around, but never in the way, a trait I greatly admire in dogs.

One summer evening, Terry and I were walking down Perry Avenue, in the middle of the street of course, with Hart and Kirtley. We might have been walking to Bob’s Market for a Coke or to the Park Drive-In for some fries. Or, we might have been going nowhere in particular at all, except that the memory feels like we had a purpose.

Dinger walked with us, but up next to the houses instead of in the street. He was walking between the houses and the shrubs just in front of them.

A lady standing on her stoop was surprised by the noise and asked no one in particular, “Is that a dog in my bushes?”

Terry answered, but only loud enough for us to hear, “That’s no dog, Lady, that’s my Dinger!” The three of us stumbled to the curb and rolled in the grass laughing.

Terry could out-shoot, out-fish and out-swim us all. He performed perfect dives off the diving board at the public pool and he could swim the entire length of the pool underwater. I can't remember ever beating him at a game of nine-ball.

He got more game with that single shot 12-gauge than anyone else would hit with a pump or automatic. I remember Terry, Kenny and me squirrel hunting early one fall morning. After we split up, Kenny and I saw one squirrel, but neither of us could get a shot. When we met back at the car a couple of hours later, Terry had three.

Dinger was a beagle, but you didn’t need a dog to flush a rabbit at Rabbit Ranch. That’s what Aubrey called the small piece of land he bought to build a house on near the outskirts of Elizabethtown. There was a rabbit behind every tree. A time or two we camped there.

One night we camped out with Hart and Kirtley and planned to fish at a small pond we’d seen nearby. When we got to the pond the next morning, we found Posted signs. The pond was surrounded by woods in the middle of nowhere, so we decided to ignore the postings, but we felt a little nervous about the potential for a farmer with a shotgun.

I was fishing with a lure called a HulaPopper. It was a black plug with a white “hula” skirt of little strips of rubber and a cupped, red face like an open mouth that made the water pop when you gave a quick tug on the line.

After a half hour or so of no action, Terry asked to borrow my rod. He cast the plug all the way across the pond, near a dead log and some grass. He gave a quick tug on the HulaPopper that made a little gulping sound on the pond's smooth surface and the biggest largemouth bass I ever saw come out of a small pond hit that plug instantly.

Terry reeled in the fish and was holding it proudly when we heard what sounded like a footstep in the woods, something or someone stepping on a dry stick. A few seconds later, as we stared quietly at each other holding our breath, we heard a second twig snap. It might have been a cow for all I know, but we imagined that it sounded a lot like a farmer with a 12-gauge.

Someone yelled, “Let’s get outta here!” and we all grabbed our gear and ran back across the fields in the direction of Rabbit Ranch, Terry carrying his largemouth bass by the lower lip as he ran.

As we walked out of Casey Creek last week with our fly rods over our shoulders, through a field of weeds that Terry predicted would leave us covered with chiggers, climbed a metal fence and crossed the one-lane paved road to our cars, I reminded Terry of the days in high school when we both worked for the Ramada Inn in E-town.

“Remember Bob Camby?” I asked about the man we had worked for.

“Man, I hated that son-of-a bitch," Terry told me. "I’ve always been a peaceful guy, but I never wanted to hit anybody as bad.”

Bob ultimately fired Terry, not for anything he had done or hadn’t done, but because he decided he didn’t like him. Not long after that, Bob himself was fired for various alleged improprieties that were never really discussed. The only thing I knew for sure was that he had tried to leave the impression all over town that he owned the motel, to what end I couldn't say. Actually, he was only the manager, and the owners lived in Lexington, far enough away that Bob could get away with the story.

He probably also fired Terry because he was afraid of him. I wasn’t at the hotel that day, but my friends told me that after Bob fired him and before he left, Terry would walk near Bob smiling and quickly raise his arm, only to scratch his head. Every time he did, according to my friends who relished every minute of it, Bob would duck.

Bob’s behavior led us all to believe that he was gay, but despite the stereotypes of small town southerners, no one seemed to care one way or the other. I never heard anyone disparage Bob when he was around or when he was not. Not for his sexuality, anyway. There were a good number of disparaging remarks regarding his being a prime, Grade A jackass, though, especially when he was drinking.

“You know,” I said as we waded the middle of Casey Creek last week, “I always thought Bob was probably gay.”

“Gay?” Terry replied with a straight face. “He was absolutely thrilled.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Holy Rollers

My grandmother was a Holy Roller. That's the pejorative label they give members of the primitive Apostolic Holiness Church in the Bible Belt where I grew up. The label is attributed to an 1893 memoir by American humorist, Charles G. Leland, in which he says, "When the Holy Spirit seized them. . .the Holy Rollers. . .rolled over and over on the floor." I went to church with my grandmother at the corner of Trim Street and West Arcadia Avenue on several occasions as a small boy. In fairness, I never saw anyone roll on the floor, but I did see a few dance in the aisles and, frankly, it scared the hell out of me.

A large, stern woman, diabetic, with long gray hair she wore in a bun, my grandmother was a foot taller than my grandfather, or so it seemed. She had a beautiful name, Ursula, that my grandfather unintentionally butchered with his southern English. It came out, "Urshel", sounding more like Herschel than Ursula, but he meant no disrespect; he was madly in love with her until the day he died.

If the church doors were unlocked, my grandmother was there. Church may have begun on Sunday mornings, but it continued through Sunday evening services, Wednesday night Prayer Meetings and other special services that seemed to fill up about every day of the week and she was always there with my grandfather obediently in tow.

A little lawn graced the front of the small, white, one-story, clapboard building. A stoop by the front door was reached by a half-dozen concrete steps with lead-pipe handrails leading down to a sidewalk that dissected the lawn and led to more concrete steps down a steep, red clay bank to the highway. There was no place to park along the highway, and thus no need for those stairs. I can't remember them ever being used, except for kids playing on them in their Sunday best. People parked along the side of the church on Trim Street.

A white sign with changeable messages, clever musings like "There's no air conditioning in hell, either", which showed up in August, or "Honk if you love Jesus", stood at the front corner of the lot facing the highway. The church wasn't air conditioned, nor was most of the South in the sixties. Ladies tried to cool themselves with fans printed with pictures of Jesus on rectangular cardboard with rounded corners and a thin, flat wooden handle glued to the bottom. They could sit perfectly still, the only movement a slight flicking of the wrist and an occasional blown strand of hair near their eyes.

The church's front had a single, double-hung window just to the left of the front doors as you entered. This window opened into the church's small bathroom and played a strategic role in the church services for us kids. We would tell our parents we had to go to the bathroom, jump out the window onto the front lawn, and play with the other kids who had done the same. Sometimes we'd get bored, go back to our parents and then do the same thing again a few minutes later. Occasionally, this irritated them and they'd tell us to "sit still". More often, they were glad we were out of their hair for a few minutes.

Members of the Apostolic Holiness Church called each other "Brother" and "Sister". The preacher, therefore, was Brother Edwin J. Bayer from Indiana, and his wife was Sister Bayer. In our rural, southern tongue, though, "Bayer" came out "Bear", so the preacher was Brother Bear, at least as I understood it.

Brother Bear wore black suits and cowboy string ties and he stared heavenward while strumming hymns on his guitar. In his early fifties, less than average height, he was almost completely bald, with a ring of prematurely gray hair around the sides and back of his small, round head. Brother Bear was as friendly a person as I ever met, easy to talk to and always smiling, always greeting someone with a handshake or a pat on the back.

Brother Bear's son, Johnny, and I sat in the back pew one Wednesday Prayer Meeting night, whispering about whatever small kids discuss during church services. Baseball would be a good guess. Johnny was a couple of years older than me, tall and skinny, and he usually ignored me, but I was the only other boy in the church that evening. Occasionally, Brother Bear would signal the start of a hymn by ducking his head under the wide, leather strap of his shiny, black flattop guitar and digging a flat pick out of his pocket, while Sister Bear strapped on an accordion and their older daughter arranged sheet music on her piano, but most of the prayer meeting was taken up by a quiz of bible knowledge. Brother Bear would ask a question and the congregation would race to find the pertinent verse in their bible.

Suddenly, as I was in the middle of giggling with Johnny about something he had said, Brother Bear pointed at me from his pulpit and in his most dramatic fire and brimstone voice roared, "The boy in the back row! How many daaaays was Jonah in the belly of the whale?"

Brother Bear stood there, pointing at me from his pulpit and staring. Petrified, I fought to avoid eye contact. Everyone in the church turned around to look at me, smile, and hold up three fingers. Now, this is the nightmare of every small child who ever went to church, the preacher and the entire congregation turning around to stare at them in the back-most pew, but it had become quite real for me. Johnny kept whispering, "Three. Three!", but I couldn't make a sound come from my throat no matter how hard I tried.

Brother Bear waited a few seconds that seemed like hours and the congregation kept smiling and waving three fingers at me, but my mental energy was focused on physically shrinking until I completely disappeared. It didn't work. Eventually, Brother Bear said, "Johnny?"

Johnny yelled, "Three!"

Brother Bear shouted, "Hallelujah!", several of the congregation echoed, "hallelujah!", and the service moved on.

Occasionally, Holy Rollers, more often than not the sisters-- in fact, I never witnessed a brother-- "get the holy spirit". They dance in the aisles, holding their bibles under their arms, crying while they carry on a dialogue with Jesus, or more specifically, Sweet Jesus. I thought they looked like the Native Americans we saw in cowboy movies dancing around campfires, chanting, while their heads bobbed up and down. And while their intentions may have been holy, they scared the holy crap out of me. When this happened, albeit rarely, these women seemed possessed. They were possessed.

After church services, the men would gather in a small group by the parking lot, smoke cigarettes and talk while they waited for the women to catch up socially.

"Did you hear about the old boy in the choir down there at the Baptist church gettin' smacked twice during church last Sunday?"

"Twice?" one of the men asked cautiously, a single eyebrow skeptically raised.

"Yes-sir. The woman in the choir standing in front of him turned around and smacked him right in the middle of The Old Rugged Cross. A minute later, she turned around and smacked him again."

"Sure 'nuff?" That's Southern for "bullshit", I'd later learn.

"Yes-sir. He and his buddies were walking out of the church after the service and one of them said, 'Why did she slap you?' He says, 'Well-sir, it was hot there in the choir loft and I noticed that her choir robe was stuck in her crack. I thought, well, that looks mighty uncomfortable, so I pulled it out for her and she smacked me.' His buddy says, 'Well, why did she smack you the second time?' 'Well-sir,' he says, 'I thought about it for a minute and decided if she felt that way about it, why hell, I'd just put it back!'"

"The hell you say," they all laughed, and headed to their cars to meet their wives and drive home in the dark.

I climbed into the middle of the backseat of the two-toned, white over brown '62 Oldsmobile that my grandmother would eventually drive for nearly thirty years, barely turning over the odometer once in all that time. As we drove home down the two-lane country road to their farm, the interior of our car lit momentarily once or twice by the headlights of an oncoming car, I thought about horror movies, vampires, and noises in the night and how none of them were scarier to a fourth-grader than Brother Bear and his ole' time religion.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Winning the Lottery

August 5th, 1971 fell on a Thursday near the end of summer vacation and in the small burg of Elizabethtown it was no more or less remarkable than any other day, unless you were a guy who was born in 1952, or you cared about one who was.

If you were a male born in 1952, as I was, this would be the day that someone from the Selective Service Board would draw a date from a rotating drum and a corresponding number between 1 and 366 from a second drum. The resulting pairing of those drawings, designed to be as random as possible, would determine whether we continued our college education and began our adult lives, or we interrupted that education for a tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the very real possibility of never having an adult life. The thought of that possibility made for a restless sleep the night before. It felt a little like waiting for the jury to come back at your murder trial.

I spent the night before the draft lottery at the farmhouse of my stepfather's parents and I rose early the next day. The drawing wouldn't be televised until mid-morning, but I was too anxious to sleep. I had a bowl of cereal and finally positioned myself in front of a black-and-white TV set with a snowy picture from the rusty antenna on the roof. I waited for what seemed like ages to see the numbers "December 21" and "341" crawl across the screen. I wasn't going to Vietnam.

My stepfather's parents lived on a farm a couple of miles outside of E-town and avoided social contact whenever possible, which seemed to be just fine with the rest of town. When their son's dilapidated, red and white '56 Ford finally died, they parked it in the front yard. They raised a few hogs and rented out a field for someone else to grow corn, but the large farm was mostly unproductive.

Mildred and Clay were angry, spiteful and mean-spirited, if I were to be totally honest. Still, Mildred's response to the lottery results dumbfounded me, but then, there were a lot of responses to the Vietnam War that I wouldn't have expected. When I turned from the TV screen with a huge smile on my face, her anger was the last thing I expected.

"It isn't fair", she spat at me. "Why does Ronnie have to go into the military and you don't?"

Her son, Ron, had enlisted and planned to make the Navy a career, but that didn't seem to matter. The draft lottery produced winners and losers and it was clear that no one who lost would consider any system equitable. I headed out the door to be with my friends and to see how they had fared.

As I drove into town, the lead guitar riff from Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home blaring from the 8-track and the windows rolled down, I remembered a day in American Government class two years before when our teacher, Mr. Baird, had raised a point that had long troubled me. A smart and well-educated man, Mr. Baird had somehow earned the nickname "Squeezel" from students and that moniker had been passed down from class to class for two decades. He was rather short, had a high voice, and strutted around like a rooster. The nickname was nonsensical, but it fit.

His perplexing point, regarding the draft, was that student deferments were illogical. Why should society, or one's parents for that matter, pay for a young man's college education and then send him to war where he might be killed? Wasn't it more efficient to send him to war first and possibly save the cost of a college education? I found the argument both heartless and specious. Any young man and his parents would gladly pay the cost of a college education to live four more years. His argument was clearly more attractive from his podium than from where we sat.

Our physics class was taught by Mr. Bailey, who shared both Mr. Baird's physical stature and conservative position on the war, but was much younger. I'd guess twenty-five. He sat on a stool behind a large lab table at the front of the room and his feet didn't reach the floor. Somehow, he had successfully dated a senior in his class a few years before and then married her after she graduated with the full knowledge of the administration, the students and the town, a situation I find as difficult to understand in retrospect as Mr. Baird's argument.

One morning we entered class and took out our physics books only to notice that our teacher's face was red and a vein protruded from his neck. Three high school students had published an underground newspaper with the headline, "Fighting for Peace is Like Fucking for Virginity". It was a bold move in a conservative town and the vulgar title alone was grounds for expulsion in western Kentucky high schools in 1969. Mr. Bailey was repulsed by the profanity and resented the political statement so deeply that he spent the entire period ranting about patriotism. Ironically, as the bell rung, he ended the tirade by saying, "I never had to serve, but if I were called up, I'd go in a heartbeat." Observe how easily those words roll off the tongue, I thought, another argument that sounds better from the safe side of a college deferment.

I walked out of the classroom with my best friend, Steve. "Wasn't that great?" he asked enthusiastically. I thought he was referring to Mr. Bailey's political statement and I began to disagree, but he quickly added, "Do you realize he talked the whole period and we just got to skip an entire physics class?"

I made my first call that day to Steve's house and he was a little more focused on political realities by then. Tall and so thin that we called him "Straw", Steve was an excellent student, the starting guard on our basketball team and our high school's best tennis player. He had a letter jacket, a pretty girlfriend and the golden touch. It seemed that everything good came to Steve and if you had asked me before the lottery how he would fare, I would have been certain that good fortune would seek him out.

Steve met me with a smile that afternoon, just hours after the draft lottery. It seemed that lottery position 352 was even more joyful than 341, though neither of us was in danger of ever wearing fatigues.

Hanging out at the Burger Chef was typically saved for Saturday nights, or for Friday nights when there was no football or basketball game, but we all knew that everyone would show up after such an important day, even if it was midweek. We parked our cars and milled around, as one by one our friends arrived, parked their cars and walked over to our circle. You knew the news by their expression long before they told you.

The sole exception was Stuart Davis. His expression looked the same as any other time I'd ever seen him, a constant half-smile. Stuart was a handsome, stocky, blond-haired offensive guard on E-town's championship football team. He was the first guy in our class who could grow real sideburns and his girlfriend was one of the prettiest girls in the history of high school. In college, he had joined ROTC, another bold move during the Vietnam War era when it seemed that more kids were burning down ROTC buildings than joining. "What's your number?" we asked.

"Two forty-one", he answered with that smile and a slight shrug, "but it doesn't matter. I'm joining the Navy to become a pilot." Now, the ROTC thing made sense.

Gary Jenkins, the guy we called Jinx, approached our group soon afterward with his small lottery number written large in his facial expression. Gary was a smart kid who ran cross-country and played on the football team. He was also the victim of abusive foster parents, though we didn't know it at the time. "I got number sixty", he told us. "I am so screwed."

Stuart offered consolation in the clumsy way of a high school football player. "Jinx, I'd give you my number if I could. I'm not going to use it."

It didn't help, of course. Gary stood there for much of the evening with both hands in the pockets of his jeans, nervously shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other, his gaze darting all around the parking lot to avoid eye contact. His shoulders were tensed inward like someone would do to keep warm on a chilly day, not during the Dog Days of summer.

Cola was the next to join the group with the most unique reaction. Bobby Tabb's nickname came from Coca-Cola's diet drink of the seventies, Tab Cola. He was a fun kid to have around. He played on the football team and sang in the Madrigals chorus. Cola was not the brightest student in E-town's Class of '70, but he somehow remembered the words to every popular song ever written and he could do Frankie Valli falsettos. In another time, Bobby would have never considered going to college. Academics just weren't his strong suit.

Before the Selective Service Act of 1971 was passed, college deferments were the ticket out of military service. If you could get into college and stay there for four years, you would likely avoid the draft, so the smart play was to go to school and run the clock out. Dick Cheney famously received five draft deferments and not a single U.S. Senator or Congressman lost a son in the Vietnam War.

Eventually, the nation grew weary of the unfair toll the war had taken on minorities and the underprivileged and the Selective Service Board was pressured to create a fairer method for draft selection. The draft lottery was implemented to solve that problem.

New college deferments were eliminated in 1971. If you received a high draft lottery position, you could voluntarily give up your deferment for a year in which you were unlikely to be drafted, after which you would no longer be eligible. With a low number, you could remain in college and be subject to the draft for one year after graduation. Bobby had hated college, but he had worked his butt off to keep his grades up. Failing out of school meant being drafted, a powerful incentive.

'Well?" we asked as he approached.

"Number 290!" he gleamed, but that wasn't the only good news. "I don't have to go to college, anymore!" he quickly added.

We spent that evening congratulating our friends with high lottery numbers and consoling those who weren't as fortunate. We assured those in the middle that they would ultimately avoid the draft, since no one knew how high in the draft the military would need to go when the time came. Would number 170 be drafted? Would 180? It was a Kafkaesque moment in our young lives when a government bureaucracy would use a purely random process to decide our fates, or so it seemed.

That Thursday in August of 1971 felt like a fateful moment, but as it turned out, 1971 was the last year of the draft of the Vietnam War era. The war ended, as did Richard Nixon's presidency, before any of us would be drafted. I graduated from college and moved to the East Coast to work and raise a family. Steve became a Baptist minister and moved away, to South Carolina last I heard. Bobby still lives in E-town, but Gary built a successful travel agency business in Louisville. Stuart Davis did become a Navy pilot and the last time I saw him he was flying 737's for Federal Express. When I asked how he liked it, he replied, "After flying A-6's off a carrier deck, it's a little boring."

The clock ran out on the war before it ran out on our deferments. My friends and I had dodged a bullet.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Glory Days

Most athletes’ glory days are over when they graduate from high school. Mine never made it past sixth grade.

I recently received a letter from a cousin with whom I had lost touch decades ago. In it was a folded newspaper clipping of our sixth grade basketball team from 1964. My cousin, Mike Stallins, played center and I was the point guard for Hall Street Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky. That’s me on the far right wearing number 14. Mike is in the center wearing number 10, as my aunt helpfully annotated with a green ballpoint pen. We won Hall Street’s first (and I suspect only) city basketball championship that year.

It was Hoosiers without Gene Hackman.

We had it all, red satin gym trunks short enough to impress Larry Bird, red cotton jerseys. Heck, we even had cheerleaders and they had uniforms.

There were eight teams in our league from Madisonville and a couple of small surrounding communities, Hanson and Anton. Waddell Avenue Elementary and West Broadway Elementary had better teams than Hall Street, but Pride Avenue Elementary regularly beat us all. We were at best a fourth place team. The season progressed with few upsets and all eight teams played in the tournament.

The remarkable thing about Pride was their backcourt—their guards were the only two black kids in the league. Their mothers came to every game and were the only African-Americans in the stands. I remember how they cheered louder for their kids than any other parents at the game, but more than that I remember how much better players their kids were than just about anyone else.

I couldn’t appreciate at that age how much courage it must have taken for those two twelve year olds to play basketball in an all-white league in 1964, or for their parents to sit in the stands and draw attention to themselves and their children. I learned just a few years ago that I had grown up, before moving away after seventh grade, in a small enclave of staunch segregationists in western Kentucky. Most of Kentucky had integrated schools by 1964, but Madisonville and surrounding communities were some of the last holdouts. The owner of the Madisonville Messenger, from which these clippings were taken, argued in editorials that blacks preferred segregation. Pride Elementary, ironically, had been at the center of racial tensions just a few years before. Nearby rural communities Sturgis and Clay had made national headlines a few years earlier by defying integration. I was living in a cauldron of civil rights struggle, but was too young to realize it.

Before I go on with my story, I owe it to Kentuckians to point out that theirs is not an unusually racist state. On the contrary, Louisville was among the first large southern cities to integrate its schools and most of the state followed quickly, but according to histories of the area, western Kentucky held communities that did not. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kentucky now has far fewer active hate groups than any other southern or bordering state, or the Midwest. Hate groups were a minority that didn't represent our community or the state then, nor do they now. But, back to my story.

We played Waddell Avenue in the semifinals and, although we were underdogs, found ourselves tied with a minute to go. I was fouled and went to the line to shoot a bonus. I was the second leading scorer on our team. My cousin scored more but that was because he was the tallest kid in the league and the referees didn’t call lane violations. He stood in the lane beneath the basket and just shot over the defender. I hit nothing but net on both free throws, putting us ahead by two with just seconds remaining.

Waddell guards brought the ball down court, but Mike was able to tie up his defender and set up a jump ball at midcourt. Waddell called timeout.

Our coach furiously laid out a strategy for the last few seconds, but I paid little attention. I just wanted to get back on the court and play ball. I heard him say something about having Mike tap the ball to the far end of the court so Waddell would use up time bringing the ball back up. He told us not to even try to take possession, because we might foul. He wanted us to get back on defense and simply wait for their guards to run the ball down, and hopefully run out the clock.

Mike tipped the ball into the opponent’s court, just like Coach had told him to do. I ran the ball down, just as Coach had told me not to do, but just as I grabbed it with both hands, a Waddell guard ran into me and I went back to the foul line. I sank both shots, putting the game out of reach.

I was one of the last to reach our dressing room and when I walked down the steps, Coach screamed, picked me up and swung me around in the air. My head bumped into Mike Travis’ lip as Coach spun me and his lip began to bleed. Mike yelled and dripped blood, but no one seemed to notice. Coach, apparently not confident that we could win the upcoming final against Pride, kept yelling, “We’re gonna’ get a second place trophy!” We hoped he meant “at least a second place trophy”, but he never said that.

My Dad and I walked in total silence through the cold winter evening from the gym to our car, staying close by the streetlights, I, wondering if I had done something good enough to make him proud and he, wondering how to tell me that I had. “Well, you bailed them out of that one, didn’t you?” he finally offered. “I guess so”, I replied and and, fathering being what it was in the sixties in the rural south, that was the last discussion that would ever be on the topic.

Truth be known, I remember nothing about the final game against Pride the next evening except the last play. Somehow, we were tied with five seconds left in the game, despite having been clobbered every time we played them in the regular season, and we had the ball. Coach called timeout and frantically drew up a play. I can’t tell you what he said now because I didn’t listen to him then. Gary Phillips inbounded the ball to me, I dribbled to the free throw line and saw my cousin, Mike, inexplicably standing alone under the basket. I remember throwing him a bounce pass to avoid the defenders between us, he turned to shoot and I saw the ball drop through the net as the horn sounded.

After a frantic celebration that none of us even remotely expected, the All Tournament Team was announced. I was a shoo-in. I was the second leading scorer on our team and my pressure free throws had clinched the semifinal game. I had an assist on the game-winning basket in the final. My cousin’s name was announced and then Gary Phillips’ was announced. I sat on the floor waiting to hear my name long after the list was completed and the crowd had headed for the exits. So long, glory days. It was an experience I would relive several times throughout my business career. Sometimes in life, you “bring home the bacon” and someone else gets to eat it.

As I stared at the clipping my cousin had mailed me, I was reminded of a special time in my life when youth allowed me to enjoy playing basketball unhindered by the knowledge that we weren't actually good enough to win a championship and oblivious to society's imperfections, even as they stared me in the face. I eventually turned the clipping over and noticed what was on the back. Amazingly, it was a nearly complete editorial cartoon that showed a Civil Rights Bill floating in a “sea of politics” with only the top half of the caption, “At the Mercy of the Currents” spared by the scissors. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in July, a few months after Hall Street Elementary’s City Championship. Glory days, indeed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Good Day Fly Fishing

He had been napping in the passenger seat as I drove the interstate through rural Virginia farmlands, past their endless fields of grasses left brown by the August heat and lack of rain, but turning off the highway onto the dirt road was his wake-up call. He removed his earphones, laid his iPod down and then raised his seatback.

"Are we almost there, Dad?"


When did he get so damned big? A couple of years ago we wore the same size wading boots. Now he wears a size larger than me. At six-feet two, he's still shorter than me, but catching up fast. In a year he'll be driving.

My favorite picture of Cary, my oldest child, was taken the day we brought him home from the hospital. I am carrying him to his crib, making a tiny hammock of my two outstretched hands joined at the fingertips and he lies sleeping across my two palms on his stomach with one arm hanging down and room to spare. Cary and my two hands fill the entire frame. His basketball shoe won't fit in my two hands nowadays.

The rear view mirror is useless. An opaque cloud of gravel dust spews from my car and frosts the tires with a fine white powder as we drive the back roads near the Shenandoah River. The head of the dust cloud swirls violently near my rear bumper but then gradually subsides until, several minutes after I have passed, its distant tail settles slowly back into the heat and quiet of the afternoon. A large, brown grasshopper hangs onto the side of a grayed fence post that still shows the small stubs of lopped off branches from its earlier life as a cedar tree. As we pass, its motion catches my eye. It flaps its wings and hops an amazing distance into the adjoining field of brown weeds. He's a good quarter-mile above the river now, but the smallmouth hope he'll come closer. I take a swig from the bottle of water in the cup holder.

We find a spot to pull off the road just above the riverbank and rig the fly rods in the heat as the dust settles and I finish off the water bottle.

I hate this part. It takes so long to rig the rods and you're right next to the river. It's like waiting for everyone else to be served before digging into your birthday cake.

"What leader should I use, Dad?"

"I'm gonna use a 4X. The water is so clear and low I'm afraid anything bigger will spook 'em. You remember how to attach them loop-to-loop?" I ask without looking up from my own knotting chores.

"Yeah. Are you going to use a popping bug?"

"I'll probably start with one." One of the attractions of fly fishing is seeing the fish hit the fly while it floats on the water's surface. "You need help with the clinch knot?"

"Nah, I'm good."

I pull two more bottles of water from the cooler, stuff them into my fanny pack, balance my fly rod in my right hand, and head down the steep bank into the river with Cary close behind. Dirt breaks loose and rolls down the bank ahead of me as I dig in my heels for purchase and try not to run downhill into the river. The cool water spills over the top of my wading boots.

We usually fish for smallmouth with 6- or even 8-weight fly rods, but the river is low and we plan to fish dry flies, so we take 3- and 4-weight rods, instead. Though there is absolutely nothing in my experience to suggest that I can predict how a fishing trip is going to unfold, I nevertheless convince myself that we won't be catching large fish today and small fish are more fun to catch on a lighter rod.

In August, rainstorms are as scarce as modest fish stories and the Shenandoah flows like syrup, simmering in the sun until it feels like bathwater on our bare legs. The stargrass beds, covered with tiny, yellow, star-shaped blossoms on top of dark green branches that float just below the surface, grow so thick in the river that you would think you could walk on top of them. Stargrass fouls baited hooks and spinning plugs, but our dry flies drift over their beds, teasing out the fish hiding in their shadows. These grass beds are as close as the river comes to a neon sign saying "fish are here".

Cary and I spread out to give each other room to cast, but stay close enough to chat. I find a dinner plate-sized opening in a sea of stargrass and cast a small dry fly into it. A fish strikes it immediately, but I miss the hook set, then quickly cast back to the same spot and this time I catch a smallmouth. I love to miss a fish and then catch him with a subsequent cast or a different fly. It's what I like best about fishing, solving a problem, catching a wary fish by convincing him that a few pieces of thread and feather on a steel hook is actually a living insect. See, once I miss him, I know he's there. And then he is usually mine.

I release the fish quickly, returning him unharmed to grow and maybe even to catch again one day. He darts back into the shade and protection of the grass bed.

It's a Wednesday. I love to fish on weekdays, and not just because I frequently have an entire stretch of river to share with only my son, though that would be reason enough. It's somehow comforting to be reminded that while I work and wait for weekends to fish, the river, the smallmouth and the mayflies are oblivious. Fish dimple the water's surface, sending out concentric rings and silently sucking in their dinner of fallen mayfly spinners in the last hour of light every day, even when I'm crawling through the evening rush hour traffic wishing I were fishing, instead.

When you think a fish has sipped in your fly, you pull back on the rod with a quick tug to set the hook. Too quick and your fragile leader may snap or you jerk the fly out of the fish's mouth. Too slow and the fish knows something isn't natural and he spits out the fly. If either of these happens, or if there was never really a fish in the first place, you're just waving a stick in the air. But if there is a fish and you're timing is just right, you feel resistance to the upward motion of your rod, your floating fly line jumps off the water and pulls taut, the rod bends easily under the strain and the fun begins. It's the difference between raising your arm to grab a fistful of air and raising your arm to grab the leash of a German Shepherd that would really rather be somewhere else.

Sometimes, fishing can be insanely challenging. Sometimes, it's so easy it isn't much fun. It can be both at different times of the same day for one fisherman. It can be challenging for one fisherman and easy for another in the same place on the same day.

Today is my day. I am in the zone. Every other cast ends with that electrifying feeling of a taut line when I raise my rod tip to set the hook. Moments before, I held a lifeless stick. Now it springs to life, bends and trembles in my hand, the smallmouth's every movement traveling through the stressed fly line like a bow drawn across a violin string to the tip of my graphite rod and on to my forearm, directly connecting me with the quarry at the end of my line exactly as if I had reached my arm out thirty feet and grabbed the fish with my bare hand. To a fly fisherman, there are few better feelings in life.

It is a good day, but not a great day, because my son doesn't share my luck. As the saying goes, I can only be as happy as my saddest child. I coach him, I encourage him, I tie a fly identical to mine to his leader, I sharpen his hook with a small triangular file, but the fish don't bite for him.

"Are you about ready to leave?" I finally ask, hoping he will not be. I'm not ready to leave the fishing, not ready for a long, quiet drive home.

"I guess", he shrugs, "if you are". His body language is even less convincing than his words. It says that fishing and not catching got old a long time ago.

I have just cast a small dry fly near the roots of a tree growing from the bank and shading a large fish, I hope, from a brutal mid-afternoon sun. I cast five times to the same spot and catch five sizeable bluegills from a pool no more than four or five feet wide. But no smallmouth. I reckon that ending the day catching a nice bluegill might salve Cary's ego, so I ask him to wade over to my spot for a few minutes before we leave.

"Trade rods with me and try my fly. Cast it upstream about a foot from the bank just to the left of those roots."

Cary swaps rods with me and his first cast misses the spot. "About three feet further upstream, I tell him. Try again."

He has a serviceable, if not consistent cast for a 15-year old, having joined me on these trips for the fourth straight year. Good enough, in fact, to have landed a nice snook and a redfish on our trip to the Everglades last spring. But consistently accurate fly-casting takes years of practice. Cary is at that point where he follows five wobbling, off-target, surface-plunking casts with a loop so tight it could pass through a screen door, the fly stopping just above the surface and quietly lighting like a real insect just inches from his target.

His second cast is a bulls-eye and the fish hits it instantly. The smallish 3-weight rod bends sharply.

"I think it's big, Dad", he says hopefully. Fishing has just become a lot more fun.

A few minutes later, Cary lands a 17-inch smallmouth, the largest either of us has ever caught in the Shenandoah. Just upstream are five men taking a fly fishing class, standing in a row across the river and learning to cast. I lift the smallmouth by its lower lip, remove the fly and hold the fish high, hoping they will notice.

It is a mystery of fishing that I can cast a fly into a small pool and catch five eight-inch bluegills in a row, and then my son can cast my same fly into the same small pool with my rod and catch a seventeen-inch smallmouth. Would I have caught the same fish on my next cast to that same spot? I hope not. I want to believe that it was not luck, that there are moments, like this one, when life is simply perfect. Catching this one grand fish alone seems to have improved his perspective on the past three hours and I am freed to feel good about my own successful day. Our ride home will be animated.

Cary explains this mystery with the verbal swagger he generally reserves for our one-on-one basketball games in the driveway, when he heaves an off-balance, desperation prayer of a shot that somehow finds the basket. "Technique, Dad", he asserts with mock sincerity. "It's all about technique."

We call it a day. We hook our flies to the largest line guides near the cork handles of our fly rods, reeling in the loose line until it is neat, and wade back across the river, just far enough upstream of the fly fishing class to avoid their flailing backcasts, and to our Jeep atop the steep dirt riverbank. A few steps before we reach the water's edge and our day of fishing will end, several large smallmouths dart teasingly past our ankles to some anticipated meal or hiding spot upstream.

Oh, what the hell, just one more cast.

"Wait a second, Cary."

I unhook my fly from the guide, the reel singing as I strip off several yards of fly line into the pool behind me, make a couple of false casts to shoot some line, and cast to a spot upstream and just ahead of where these fish should be by now. My fly gently lights on the surface and just begins to drift with the current when I hear a pop! on the water's surface and instinctively raise my rod tip. I feel the resistance and my line stretches taut.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


There is a persimmon tree in my yard. It sits atop a steep bank at the east edge of a small clump of woods where it sees morning sun. Its fallen fruits roll the few feet down the little hill and stop within arm’s reach of the stone wall that edges my driveway and happens to provide a perfect place to sit and eat persimmons.

I see them as I stand in front of the kitchen sink with my first cup of coffee, the white, double-hung window behind it perfectly framing the scene, chilly, with just a splash of early morning sun. Today, I can count thirteen persimmons from this window, all hanging on thin limbs that lost the last of their leaves to last night’s late November wind and rain. The persimmons hung on bravely through the storm and now rest quietly under a perfect Carolina blue sky. One dangles by itself at the very end of a limb, bending it downward like the ornament on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Others grow in clumps on stronger branches.

It isn’t much of a tree, truth be told, perhaps two inches in diameter, growing wild and crowded by the underbrush. Depite the odds, it has managed to reach a height of about ten feet. Tall, gangly and thin, it reminds me of me, I suppose. The fruit isn't much to brag about, either. The day we discovered the tree at our new home, my mother-in-law warned me never to eat the fruit until after it falls from the tree, lest I "pucker myself to death". Others say you shouldn't eat the fruit until after the first frost. But that's a lesson I learned early in life.

My great-grandmother and a persimmon tree are the subjects of my earliest memory. I called her “Bombo” for whatever reason four-year olds choose to name their elders. My grandparent’s lived in a small house in a small town in western Kentucky on the corner of Kiegan Street and an alley that, like my new home, had a stone wall running along one side, just high enough to sit on, with a large persimmon tree growing next to it.

Perhaps it wasn’t actually so large. I remembered the wall being about three feet high until I drove by decades later and noticed that it was barely a foot higher than the little alley it borders. I suppose that was the perfect height for a four-year old to sit, but I concede that the giant, spreading persimmon tree of my memory might not have been much taller than the one outside my kitchen window this morning.

On that warm fall day many years ago, Bombo sat next to me on that wall and we ate sweet, delicious persimmons. I remember the taste, the color, the texture, the day, the warmth of the sun, the long cotton dress she used to hold the persimmons we gathered, and I remember her smile. I hope she enjoyed that day as much as I did. By the time the persimmons were once again ripe, she was no longer with us. I feel privileged to have had even a little time with a great-grandparent. Not everyone gets the opportunity. I was her first great-grandchild and the only one she would know.

Early the following autumn, I noticed the fruits on the tree and rushed inside to ask Bombo to help me eat the persimmons. She told me that we couldn’t eat them until they had been “frosted on”. Undaunted, I went to my grandmother, Bombo’s daughter, and asked her to frost on the persimmons for me.

I suspect that most people aren’t that familiar with persimmon, except perhaps as a decorator's paint color that goes well with ecru. Grown commercially in California, persimmons rarely show up in the produce department of your local grocery. I read that persimmons are quite popular in Japan and China, but the Asian variety is less astringent, ripens on the tree and doesn’t require the chemical reactions of the first frost to break down the tannin and release its sweetness. California growers graft the Asian variety to North American root stock to get the best characteristics of both varieties. The domestic tree is an attractive landscape plant because it grows in a wide range of conditions, has few pest and disease problems, and grows lovely foliage, flowers and fruit, but it doesn’t appear to be commercially viable. So, persimmons will likely remain somewhat exotic here.

Which is just fine with me. I'm not sure I would even remember having shared an apple with my great-grandmother at the age of four.

My struggling little persimmon tree with its few ripe fruits is much more than a scrawny, wild fruit tree to me. It’s a treasure. It's a sign. What are the odds of buying a home in town and finding a wild persimmon tree growing next to its stone wall?

I’m going to nurture it, but I’m also going to plant my own. I’ll plant one of the new trees on the same bank, near its wild, native cousin and my new stone wall, so someday perhaps I can sit on that wall and share a persimmon with a grandchild or, God willing, a great-grandchild, just like Bombo and me.

Wonder what he'll call me.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Being Southern

I want to be southern again.

I know it probably seems that if you're a southerner you would always be southern, but it isn't like being say, British. If you leave the South for a significant period of time, you lose the drawl, you try new things and forget the old, you begin to think the world has changed because your world did. Turns out I miss it.

This bit of self-awareness caught me by surprise after taking Harry Murray's fly fishing class on a whim seven years ago. I fell madly in love with the sport and then realized that it was really my second fling. Remembering that fishing had brought me great joy when I was growing up, I began to wonder why I had simply given up the sport for nearly twenty years, and to wonder what else I had discarded and forgotten along the way. It turned out to be a lot.

I fished with friends in rural western Kentucky in my youth. We would grab our Zebco’s, dig a can of worms and head for nearby ponds and lakes on our bikes. We didn’t catch many fish and the ones we caught were usually small bluegill, but that wasn’t the point. It was one of the few forms of recreation available to us in that decade long before Laser Tag and Space Invaders. We could play Little League, fish, hunt when we were older, or swim in the local lake. Catching a fish, hitting a home run, these were the big thrills of my youth.

My father died suddenly when I was twelve and there are two memories of our brief time together that are burned into the sepia snapshots of my memory. One is the night when I was in sixth grade and sank four free throws in a row in the last minute of a game that would make Hall Street Elementary city champs. Basketball is big in Kentucky. Very big. And my dad was there to see it. The second is a fishing trip to Kentucky Lake with my mom and dad. Dad bought me a cane pole and a small bucket of minnows. When I asked if we should buy a stringer, he laughed and said, “Son, I’ll carry home all the fish you catch today in my back pocket." I caught a large sunfish for each of his pockets that day.

It didn’t take a lot of pondering to realize that I stopped fishing after college when I moved to a big city because I was far from my fishing buddies. I could have fished by myself I suppose, but like I said, that wasn’t the point.

As I grew into my teens, I started hunting. My grandfather took me squirrel hunting and quail hunting. In high school, I would go hunting with my friends. We never worried about the dangers of hunting, we’d been taking hunting safety classes in school since the seventh grade. There was nothing unusual about three teens walking through open fields with shotguns. We didn’t think about the ethics of killing animals for sport, it’s just what we did. We hunted, we fraternized, we enjoyed the sport, and we ate the game. What was there to think about?

But now I think about why I stopped hunting. Mostly, I stopped for the same reasons I stopped fishing. My new friends in the city didn’t hunt and I didn’t know where to go by myself, so I let it slip away.

My children grew up in a different place and a different time. Growing up in the city, they link guns to human violence and I’m glad they do. I’ll be perfectly happy if none of the three ever sees a gun. I’m not even sure that I could hunt again. I’ve been changed by the city, too. I think I would really enjoy skeet shooting, though, and it might be an adequate substitute. I plan to give it a try one day soon. Recently, I was startled when my oldest son told me out of the blue that he thought he might like hunting. I wonder if being southern is as much genetic as geographic.

It’s not just hunting and fishing that I’ve lost. I’ve grown tired of scrounging for edible barbecue. On a recent trip through North Carolina, my family stopped for a pulled pork sandwich with the local vinegar-based sauce. One bite and my children’s expressions told me they knew they had just enjoyed their first real taste of barbecue. You see, barbecue is sort of like bagels. Once you've eaten a New York bagel, a bagel from anyplace other than New York is not a bagel at all. It's just something that makes you really wish you had a bagel.

In my youth, the drive from my grandparent’s farm into town passed a small, white building that housed a tiny country store, two gas pumps under a small roof supported by a single post in the shape of a “Y", and a small restaurant. Creekmur’s Store, locally pronounced Crickmers, with “Store" omitted as an unnecessary clarification, made its own barbecue that announced itself for a mile in either direction, the sharp, sweet, smoky smell unabated by rolled up windows in that era before air conditioned cars.

I want to order grits for breakfast in a small, family-owned restaurant where the waitresses call everyone “hon" and it doesn’t sound like an affectation. Without the drawl, the sentiment loses its credibility. While I’m asking, I want the grits to be good and lightly salted and cuddling a pat of butter that has just begun to melt.

I want to trade my MacMansion for a real house with quirks. Neighbors and friends will always use the back door, stepping inside and yelling “hello" instead of knocking, and not bothering to call ahead. I want to have a fishing boat and to park it behind the garage, out of the view of neighbors and out of the reach of a homeowner’s association. Our kids’ friends will be as comfortable in our house as in their own-- polite, but comfortable.

Recently, I instinctively opened the door for an elderly lady, who inched slowly by my extended arm with the aid of a cane. She smiled and with ever so light a drawl said, “Why, thank you!" Sensing that she was from a different time but similar place, I smiled back and apologized. “I can’t help it, Ma'am. I’m southern."

“And if you didn’t, your mama would have taken a hickory switch to you, wouldn’t she?", she added with another smile.

I want to sit in a swing with my wife on a wide, deeply shaded front porch that is cool on the hottest day, dragging my heels ever so lightly back and forth across a floor made of wide, tongue-and-groove boards, thickly coated with many years of imperfect but glossy, gray enamel.

My fives and nines abandoned me soon after I moved to the city. The chuckles from strangers and barbs from my new friends sent them into hiding. My fahvs were replaced by fives and my nans gave way to nines. I want them back. I want to again feel comfortable and unapologetic with my southern English.

I also recently realized that I am the only member of my family, or my wife's family for that matter, who has ever lived in a large city and worked for large corporations. For nearly three decades I suppose I thought that everyone else's life was just like mine. But the truth is mine has been nothing like theirs.

My days here have been successful and rewarding well beyond anything I could have imagined when my wife and I left college and moved east in a red and white VW minivan full of "furniture" that should have been abandoned and with just enough money to pay for the gas. But I want to close out this grand experiment that has been the last 29 years of my life and walk away content that, although it was great while it lasted, its time has passed.

I want to go home.

I want to be southern again.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


“Did you hear that bird?”

My grandfather sat in a green, metal lawn chair that was rusty in places, and cocked his head slightly toward the field the call had come from. He was relaxing in what he would have called the cool of the evenin’. Cool, perhaps, in comparison to the blazing hot summer day that had preceded it. It was that less miserable, mysterious time at the end of the day in mid-summer with the sun getting low and the light constantly changing, after the day’s work was done but before the encroachment of mosquitoes and eventual darkness. It began when my grandfather went to sit in the yard after dinner while my grandmother did the dishes before joining us and it ended when he slapped the first mosquito on his forearm or the back of his neck. In between, we talked about anything and everything.

“That’s a quail over in that field,” he explained. “Some people call ‘em Bob White’s because it sounds like that’s what he’s saying. . . Bob Whieeet! Bob Whieet!”

His cabin sat within waving distance of the gravel road. Perhaps tonight a rusted car, more likely a pickup, would pass and the driver leaning out the window on his armpit would smile and wave to “Brad” as he left behind a cloud of gravel dust, but probably not. “That was Delbert Johnson’s oldest boy”, he’d tell me, as if I knew Delbert Johnson or his children. The rural south of my youth felt like gravel dust and sounded like quail.

Quail and whippoorwills seem to call when everything else is quiet. I remember them in the late day and early evening, before the bullfrogs and cicadas interrupted and they had the entire soundstage to themselves.

And I remember my grandfather relaxing in that chair in the front yard of his cabin, or many other chairs in many other yards, trying to beat the heat by sitting nearly motionless in his wool slacks and short sleeve, button collar shirt.

Smells are a strong trigger of memories, but sounds can be, too, like the call of a quail or whippoorwill that instantly transports me to those childhood conversations with my grandfather in the cool of the evenin’.

The Tipple

My father and my uncle, Norris, stopped suddenly in front of me and stared through the trees toward the tipple where the sound had come from.

“What was that?” my Dad asked.

We stood high on a hillside covered with golden brown grass that reached their knees and my waist. We looked down into the clearing through the bare oak trees toward the base of the corrugated steel and grayed wood structure that rose three or four stories and, despite our position on higher ground, continued another twenty feet over our heads.

“I think there’s somebody in the tipple”, my Dad asserted with a noticeable lack of confidence.

They carried shotguns lazily drooped over their shoulders, like infantrymen but without the discipline, and walked deliberately, hoping to flush quail on a cold, late autumn Saturday in the western Kentucky strip mine fields.

“Working on a Saturday?” My uncle was skeptical. My father worked for Peabody Coal Company as an electrician. Most of the men in our family worked the mines at one time or another, as a miner, an electrician, or occasionally as an owner.

I had traipsed along a few yards behind them all morning, a twelve-year old trying to keep up with grown men, over steep hills and across wide fields. Years later, I would remember that as they walked up the steep hills ahead of me, their shotguns slung over their shoulders, the muzzles would occasionally point directly at me for a few seconds. It was frightening, the knowledge that they most certainly had their safeties on was somehow not convincing, and the terrain was tough for my short legs, but I didn’t complain because I felt honored that they had offered to bring me along at all. I didn’t want to say or do anything that might give them second thoughts next time, so I kept quiet, pushed on and tried to walk a few steps to the side when they walked uphill.

As we stood there, another gust of wind blew a loose and bent sheet of corrugated steel on the tipple’s exterior and we heard that sound again, like quiet thunder.

“Maybe they’re tearing it down,” my Dad suggested. The mine did appear abandoned and the structure looked ancient.

“Nah”, my uncle replied. “I think it’s just the wind blowing that loose sheet of metal.”

We moved on toward a fence line across the field. When farms were small with rectangular fields divided by wire fences, the brush along the fence line would continue to grow each year after the rest of the field was plowed. It was great habitat for quail and the first place a quail hunter explored. Nowadays, farms are larger and fence lines less common and this evolution is blamed in part for the scarcity of Bob White quail north of Georgia.

Quail are beautiful and unusual birds, and quite tasty; grilled quail with blackberry sauce is still my annual request for a special birthday dinner, though we buy them at the supermarket now instead of hunting them. And they’re wily. They live in heavy underbrush on the ground and when threatened, prefer to run along the ground through the brush rather than expose themselves by flying. You need a good bird dog to hunt quail, not just because they are hard to find, but also because you have to flush them into the air to get off a shot.

I’ve also read that a bad winter in the early seventies pushed their range back southward, they’re having expanded into Kentucky and Virginia after several mild winters. Quail are not equipped to scratch through snow and ice for food. Whatever the reason, the good quail hunting is now in Georgia.

“What’s a tipple?” I asked.

“It’s that tall building where they load coal from the mine onto trucks. That conveyor belt brings the coal up from the mine up into the tipple and trucks drive under it and they dump the coal into the truck.” Tipples were a common sight in western Kentucky; I had just never known what they were called.

“Do you want to shoot my gun?” my Dad asked. We had stopped for a rest and for them to smoke cigarettes.

“Sure!” I said, though I was anything but.

The gun was a twelve-gauge Browning automatic, nearly as tall as me. It sounded like a cannon when it fired and had a healthy recoil. My Dad worked in the mines to feed a wife and five children. He rented our small house and drove a dilapidated car, but he owned an expensive shotgun. Bird hunting was his one indulgence.

Dad scanned the treetops for a target and handed me the gun.

“See if you can hit that clump of leaves on that dead branch.”

I had a more modest target in mind. I hoped to shoot vaguely skyward and to avoid hitting myself or any other living creature, especially my Dad or my uncle, since that would almost certainly dampen my prospects of hunting with them again, and if I happened to hit anything remotely attached to the top of this tree, well, that would be a bonus.

Dad's Browning had a strong but nice odor of gun oil and the stock, though made of highly polished wood, had a clear finish coat that felt and faintly smelled of plastic. I took the gun with my right hand around the skinniest part of the stock. I grabbed the forestock, carved with a tiny checkerboard design to make it less slippery, with my left hand and glanced down at the gold trigger and the etched receiver.

I pointed the gun skyward and in the general direction of the branch, the muzzle waving around in a small circle because of its length and weight, clicked off the safety, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. I missed, the explosion echoed across the field, and the recoil caused me to flinch and pull the trigger again, two shots in rapid succession, bam! bam! when only one had been expected. It felt like I was riding the gun and holding on for dear life. The scent of gun oil and polyurethane gave way to the acrid smell of spent shotgun shells and my ears rang as the echo died.

“Damn!” my startled Dad yelled and giggled nervously. “Why did you shoot twice?” He and my uncle glanced at one another, wondering, I suppose, if handing a loaded cannon to a twelve year old had been as great an idea as it had initially sounded.

“I don’t know”, I said sheepishly as he took the gun from me and checked the safety. We started walking toward another fence line, them side by side, me bringing up the rear once again.

“It’s an automatic shotgun, right?” I inquired. “Does it keep firing if you hold the trigger down?”

“I don’t know, son. Will it?” he asked his younger brother. A long discussion of guns followed and, although my question had started it, I was no longer a part of their conversation. They were brothers, after all, and sometimes brothers go places where the rest of the world is not invited and without thinking about it, close the door behind them.

“I have a pump at home that will keep firing as long as you keep pumping shells into the chamber. I don’t know what an automatic will do. I guess we could try it and see. . . .”, I heard my uncle say.

Theirs was a club I wanted desperately to join that day, but I would never get closer than peeking through the window from a seat on the edge of the front porch, feet dangling and legs not long enough to reach the ground. Their conversation trailed off in my mind, as they shared stories and I returned to keeping up through the high grass and worrying about those muzzles.

My father died in an automobile accident later that year. He was driving home in the rain from a meeting of wildcat strikers at the mine where he worked. This was the first and last hunting trip I would take with him.


We walked side by side, my grandfather and I, down a dirt road near the cabin where he lived in western Kentucky, alongside the spoils of abandoned strip mines. Scrubby little evergreens covered the steep hillsides that were not a natural part of the landscape, but had been shaped by the giant shovels of the coal companies, and there was little underbrush to cover the ground. In fact, most of the ground was covered by shale chips separated from the coal and cast aside and giving the earth a hard, faded-gray look.

The bugs were ferocious. They bred in the many small ponds unintentionally created by the mining, ponds that were sometimes an iridescent blue from leaching copper that would make them look right at home in a painting of an imaginary Martian landscape.

After my father’s death, my family had moved into the home of my grandparents and my grandfather picked up where Dad left off. I carried his Browning Sweet 16 and for reasons I no longer remember, he was just along for the walk.

“My cousin was an awful good quail shot”, he proclaimed as we dragged our boots through the dust and autumn heat.


“Oh, yeah.” He said it slowly and with emphasis, and then paused for maximum dramatic effect.

He looked down at his feet to avoid the ruts in the dirt road, but kept talking. There was very little that could actually interrupt my grandfather when he was talking, which was most of the time he was awake. “He could almost always get a double, sometimes a triple. That’s when you flush a covey and get two or even three birds as they rise.”

“That’s pretty impressive.” I fought hard to keep my left eyebrow from arching high into my forehead, the international symbol for incredulity.

“Sometimes when the covey flushes, some of the birds go left and some right. A good quail hunter can wait until two birds cross”, he reached out his hands to demonstrate the convergence of a couple of quails as the covey left the ground, “and hit ‘em both with one shot.”

A hunter can tell fish stories that are the equal of any fisherman’s.

Lady in Black

Before my wife and I had children, about three million years ago it seems, we traveled to Europe several times. One of my favorite memories is a trip to Germany, Austria and Italy in the fall of 1982.

We began the trip in Germany, after visiting my sister, who was in the army and stationed at Fulda. During the Cold War, this was the place where the Soviets would most likely initiate a conventional attack with hordes of tanks streaming through the “Fulda gap”. And my sister sat there waiting for them. Of course, at the time we weren't yet aware that most of the Soviet tanks would have broken down from lack of maintenance, fuel and spare parts before they reached the border. Even so, things appeared under control at the gap, so we left Fulda for a trip along the Rhine, through the Austrian Alps to Italy, Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome, then back to Germany for the flight home.

Vicki’s foodie friend had recommended that we eat at Passetto when we reached Rome, so we made dinner reservations not long after arriving. Ristorante Passetto sits at the end of Piazza Navona, and probably more recognizably near the Pantheon, and has served customers for more than 150 years. When we were there in the early eighties, there were elegant indoor dining rooms but al fresco was the preferred way to dine on a warm night.

The maitre d’ led us through the mostly empty interior dining rooms and out onto a terrace that was busy, but not crowded. We were seated at an elegant table with a white tablecloth that afforded views of both the piazza and the clientele. We ordered wine and watched both.

As we enjoyed the wine, we glanced at our menus. Vicki had difficulty choosing an entrée, but I noticed grilled quail and set my menu aside. A large party of six or eight people sat at a table on the edge of the terrace, in my line of sight of the piazza. I imagined that they were Italian, not tourists like us, perhaps because they seemed more comfortable with their surroundings.

A lady in a little black dress facing in my direction across the patio particularly caught my eye. She was simply but elegantly dressed, with sparkling, dangling earrings and dark hair that hung just above her shoulders. She had a magnificent smile, which she used constantly, and her conversation was quite animated, perhaps another clue that she was Italian.

When our entrees arrived, I self-consciously picked at the two quail breasts. I tried to cut the fleshiest parts of the breast with a knife and fork, but mostly I chased them around the plate. Quail are small and lend themselves to being eaten with one’s fingers. But I am far more comfortable doing that in my home than in Ristorante Passetto, imagining that at any moment one of the local patrons will shout, “Il mio dio! He’s eating with his hands!”

As I struggled with the quail and my self-consciousness, I happened to glance up at the lady in the little black dress. She, too, was eating quail. But she ate with her fingers, the ends of the small breastbones held between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, she smiled and talked as she ate, biting off small pieces of meat from the bone, then talking, smiling and laughing with her friends, now taking another bite as she nodded in agreement, showing not a hint of unease.

I stared for a few seconds at this woman who owned the self-assurance of beauty and youth and grace, and I hoped that sometime in my life I might be able do something, anything, with such poise as she ate quail.

Black Pike

Burton grew up on a farm in Casey County. Bud, his oldest brother, went to college and later taught college, becoming the head of the physics department at the University of Kentucky and later, while my wife and I were in college there, Dean of Student Academic Affairs. Tom, his other brother, went into real estate, but stayed close to home.

Burton became a farmer, after a stint in the navy in World War II, and lived his entire life near his boyhood farm. He also became my father-in-law many years ago. Though we don’t always see eye to eye on many political matters, he believing that George Bush has a detectable I.Q., for example, we are of a single mind on the topic of fishing, the primary point of our agreement being that we should do it every chance we get.

We also share a love for drives in the country in his pickup truck, an old Toyota that barely accommodates my long legs. I spent countless hours on similar drives in the country with my grandfather when I was growing up, me standing on the seat next to him while he carried on a travel monologue befitting the best double-decker bus tours of New York or London, except that our trips were down gravel roads past abandoned cabins where people he knew as a child had once lived. Burton and I have taken many such trips over three decades, though nowadays he prefers that I drive in deference to his weakening eyesight.

On a recent trip to visit the grandparents, he asked if I would like to drive down to Black Pike to see a hunting preserve being built near his boyhood farm. He pointed out where the farm had been and showed me the length of the valley and the small stream that ran its length.

“There was good quail hunting down here when I was a kid, and Daddy was a awful good shot. He’d hunt along the fence lines and could always come home with a mess of quail.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied. “You know, every year Vicki asks me what I want for my birthday dinner and every year I ask for grilled quail with blackberry sauce. I guess it’s probably my favorite meal.”

Pa had a different perspective.

“I ate about all the quail I wanted when I was a kid. We didn’t have a lot of money and Daddy was a good quail shot, so we had quail until I was about sick of it.”


“Yeah, Mama called it ‘bird’. She’d say, ‘We’re havin’ bird for dinner’ and I’d think, ‘Not again!’ We’d each get two birds and she’d serve them on toast.”

“Well,” I said. “We had quail when I was a kid, too, but we never had enough to get sick of it. Sounds like maybe your Dad was a better shot than mine.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “Daddy was an awful good quail shot.”

Twice the Speed of Sound

My life took a dramatically different path than my father’s, or anyone else in my family, I suppose. Leaving college in Kentucky with a computer science degree, I married and moved to Washington, DC to work for a division of General Electric. Later, I earned an MBA and worked for companies in the telecommunications field, including Cable & Wireless, the London-based international telecommunications conglomerate with the anachronistic name attributed to Marconi’s wireless telegraph. The company eventually moved into the business of undersea communications cables and extended their name.

My work with C&W took me to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jamaica and several other countries where C&W had holdings, that is to say the former British Empire, but no place more often than to the London headquarters. For a long while, I commuted between Washington and London, flying to Heathrow on Sunday evenings and returning to Dulles on Fridays. The British Air flight attendants got to know me by name.

One Friday morning, as we sat in the business class section of a BA Boeing 767, the pilot informed us that the flight would be delayed while the computer was repaired. A few of us regulars were rebooked on the Concorde Supersonic Transport and got to fly ahead to New York.

The Concorde had a highly refined interior for a commercial plane, much like smaller private jets I have flown, but I found it cramped. As I walked down the center aisle, I ducked slightly, whether from actual lack of headroom or a sense of claustrophobia I cannot truly say. At six feet five, I couldn’t stand up straight in the lavatories and the seats were a little narrow even for a skinny guy like me.

Walking down the aisle with my carry-on bag in front of me, I passed passengers wearing expensive dark wool business suits, occasionally stretching out their arm to reveal a Rolex from beneath their French cuffs. Airfare ran about four times the cost of a first class ticket on a widebody flight, so the passenger list was dominated by corporate executives whose companies would foot the bill because their time was so incredibly valuable, or more likely because their attorneys had negotiated well for perqs. A handful of “normal” people slowly amassed a few hundred thousand passenger miles for a free ticket for the experience of flying the Concorde.

I placed my carry-on into the overhead bin, small by widebody standards, and squeezed into the window seat. Looking forward, I could see the small speed indicator mounted high on the bulkhead to the left that would later display our progress as we exceeded mach two. I pulled out a novel I had been reading and, like everyone else, tried to look like I had been there before.

As we waited to be cleared for takeoff, the flight attendants handed out menus for dinner selection. Befitting the marketing message, the pretentious menu included filet mignon, Champagne, caviar and the like. One of the options was quail and I looked no further.

The seatback held a certificate signed by our pilot to authenticate our presence on the flight, along with a ballpoint pen and several other goodies that, contrary to my expectations would later fail to impress my small children.

Quail is common in two very different sets of circumstances. It frequents the menus of expensive restaurants, where it is marketed as a delicacy, but it is also common, or was at one time, on the tables of farmers and miners whose most valuable possession is an expensive shotgun, whose entertainment is hunting, and whose families need to be fed.

A few hours into the flight we were served dinner and I noticed that the gentleman sitting next to me, dressed in a striking Seville Row tailored suit, had also ordered the quail. Although we had managed to avoid conversation for the first few hours of the flight—long flights always seemed to work that way, either you avoided talking to your neighbor completely, or struck up a conversation that lasted several hours until you landed—I made some inane comment about the quail and he responded by introducing himself.

“My Dad was a quail hunter and a coal miner. I’m not sure he was ever on an airplane”, I said.

“No kidding! I’m in the coal business”, he replied.

“Who do you work for?”

“I’m the CFO of Island Creek Coal Company”, he replied. “Where did your father work?”

“Peabody Coal Company in western Kentucky. Heard of it?”

He smiled and nodded as he chewed another bite of quail from the small breastbone.

“My company bought those mines years ago, but the Clean Air Act nearly wiped out coal mining in Kentucky by the late 60's. It's bituminous coal and it burns too dirty. Coal mining in Kentucky has changed dramatically since your Dad worked there.”

What hasn’t, I thought.

I finished my quail, took the last sip of Champaign from the crystal glass, laid my fork and cloth napkin on the tray and looked out the window into the gray sameness of the air at high altitudes, miles above the clouds, and the memories rushed in like air filling a vacuum. I reached across my body with my left hand, flattened my bare palm and fingers against the acrylic window and stared at it for a moment. Despite the incredibly cold and thin atmosphere outside the plane at 50,000 feet, the air friction at twice the speed of sound makes the windows warm to the touch.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


I grew up in the south drinking sweetea. I never heard it called iced tea or just tea, never imagined that you could actually drink tea that hadn't been sweetened and for the longest time, frankly, I didn't realize that it was supposed to be two separate words.

I eventually went to college, married and moved away to the city and, at a time and for reasons I can no longer recall, I began to drink unsweetened iced tea. I soon found sweetened tea cloying. I wouldn't drink a cola (colas, cokes, pop, soda and RC Cola being a related topic for another day) with spaghetti or a steak and to me sweetened tea is no different. Yes, I could once drink sweetened iced tea, but then I could once drink Boone Farm Apple Wine.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not making a value judgment about those who prefer their tea with sugar or honey or bourbon, for that matter, but having just returned to the South, I've noticed that it is an important social issue here and I find the entire matter intriguing, though I quickly admit this may be an indication that I have far too much time on my hands.

I love barbecue, the quality of southern barbecue having been one of the major drivers of my decision to return to the South, and sweetea seems to be a particularly touchy issue in barbecue joints. One very popular barbecue joint in our new town will only serve sweetea or soda. There are no unsweetened drinks on the menu. At another, the waitress reserves a special look of disdain for anyone who orders unsweetened tea. Then she pretends that she didn't hear your order. One refused to leave our table until I changed my mind. She just stood there looking at me, the queen of passive-aggression, until I said, "Make that sweetea, please".

A column in a local newspaper addressed this thorny issue last week and unequivocally posited that ordering unsweetened tea in a barbecue joint is just plain wrong (and in doing so, by the way, confirmed that I am not the only person here with too much free time). Furthermore, according to the author, ordering unsweetened tea isn't even grammatically correct in the South-- one should order unsweet tea.

I have seen "unsweet tea" on menus here, though rarely, and as best I can tell, this is not the correct use of the word. According to Princeton University's Wordnet, unsweet is an adjective meaning moderately dry, as in champagne, resulting from the decomposition of sugar in the fermentation process, or it can mean distasteful, as in "he found life to be unsweet". Unsweetened is the adjective that means not made sweet. So, I can have my tea sweet or distasteful?

Grammar police notwithstanding, I don't understand the logic behind having someone else sweeten my drink. What if I want to sweeten my tea with honey or an artificial sweetener? Too bad for me-- if you drink tea in a southern barbecue joint it will be sweetened and it will be sweetened with sugar. I've never known a restaurant or cafe to offer me sweetened coffee. They put sugar on the table and allow the customer to sweeten to their individual preference. Why, then, should they pre-sweeten my tea? Because it isn't simply a question of whether or not tea should be sweetened, but how sweet it should be.

My father-in-law insists on putting four spoonfuls of sugar in his glass of iced tea, which leaves about two spoonfuls undissolved in the bottom of his glass no matter how long he stirs. I tried to explain that cold water can only absorb so much sugar and beyond that point adding more sugar doesn't make the drink sweeter. He could heat the water and it would dissolve a bit more sugar, but then it would be syrup, or at best hot tea, and not iced tea at all. He explained to me that he sweetened his iced tea "to his taste" and, rightly, that it was none of my damned business. I wisely dropped the subject, but my mother-in-law continued to complain bitterly about the inch of wet sugar and lemon she had to clean from the bottom of his glass after every meal.

My oldest son, Cary, grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, which is decidedly not southern despite its location below the Mason-Dixon Line. Now, twenty minutes drive outside of the suburbs and the landscape becomes seriously southern with more pickups than cars, gun racks, drawls and roadside bars, but that isn't where he grew up. In the Northern Virginia suburbs he knew more Asians, for example, than Bubbas and more lacrosse players than NASCAR fans. In the Yankee stronghold of the Washington metropolitan area, waiters don't even ask if you want sweetened or unsweetened tea. They serve iced tea and assume that if you want it sweetened, you'll add sugar.

Farther north, the situation is even more bizarre. I ordered iced tea in a Boston restaurant one autumn and was informed by the waitress that iced tea is a summer drink. I could order a cold beer in a snowstorm, a soda in a glass of ice, or even a milkshake, but there was apparently something about iced tea that made it undrinkable in the cooler seasons of New England. Maybe it was somehow tied to that revolutionary thing regarding tea and Boston Harbor, I don't know, but when she called the milkshake a frappe, I decided to just shut up and eat my lobsta'.

Since we recently moved to North Carolina, Cary has decided that he wants to out-southern his dad, even though I have a twenty-year headstart. He orders sweetea and shakes his head in disgust when I don't. He's an English major, though, and struggles mightily to justify unsweet as an adjective to describe tea. At least he's getting into the southern thing and I should be pleased that he isn't asking why the hell I moved him here. I should be happy that he considers my southern heritage worthy of emulation and, in fact, I am.

I suppose that, in the end, drinking sweetea is a requirement for membership in a club of which everyone who knows me already believes I was a founding member. I look, sound, think and act southern right up to the point when I say, "Unsweetened tea, please", the waitress drops her jaw and tray, and the other patrons give me that "he's an impostor!" glance.

Before my twenty-five years in Washington, I grew up hunting and fishing, riding in the bed of my grandpa's pickup truck, saying "yes ma'm", and knowing that the plural form of you is y'all, but I fear that my inability to reacquire a taste for sweetea may be the undoing of my re-initiation as a southerner.

And that would be unsweet.