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Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category

Another Claim to Fame

A few years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about Jefferson, Georgia, where I’ve lived for the last dozen years. They were stories about the history of the city, the county, and a few local people of varying degrees of celebrity.

Well, since I wrote all that, Jefferson has scored another claim to fame. Added another superlative to its history. Stuck another feather in its cap.

We are now the home of the world’s largest mattress.

Laugh if you must, but one Jefferson business took the matter seriously enough to actually construct the thing.

Here’s the story.

The world’s largest mattress is 38 feet wide and 80 feet long, which is about 3,000 square feet. That’s the size of 72 king-size mattresses. Or 96 queen-size, or 110 regular-size, or 156 twin-size.

The WLM was designed and built by a mattress company from Tennessee. It weighs 4,560 pounds. It consists of a frame, a boatload of foam padding, a giant mattress pad, and an equally huge cloth cover. The structure is supported by 46 roof trusses.

The WLM is located in the middle of the two-acre sales floor of Cotton Mill Interiors, a furniture and accessories store that occupies most of a former cotton mill near the center of town.

That enterprise, Jefferson Mills, is remembered fondly by the locals.

The mill opened in 1899 and for decades was the town’s largest employer and taxpayer. It was noted for its production of high-quality corduroy. The mill closed in 1995, and the structure was renovated for retail use.

The world’s largest mattress, you’ll be pleased to know, is open to the bouncing public. The owners invite kids and parents to take off their shoes, climb aboard, and go for a romp. A safety railing protects against falls.

As often happens, the PR people laid it on a little thick at the ribbon-cutting: “The reason for building the mattress is to promote the importance of sleep to an overall healthy lifestyle.” Uh, okay.

Still, as promotional schemes go, the WLM is benign and inoffensive. And it’s a lot classier than an inflatable gorilla in front of the building. Or the Chamber of Commerce throwing turkeys off the roof at Thanksgiving.

So far, I have not availed myself of a round of bouncing. But, hey — never say never.

WLM

 

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Help is On the Way

A few days ago, I stopped at the local Kroger for a few things, among them a bottle of Pinot Noir.

At the self-checkout, in order to get the pesky proof-of-age step out of the way (as if a graybeard like me isn’t over 21), I scanned the bottle of wine first.

I.D. check required!” barked the scanner in a female voice. “Help is on the way!”

Moments later, a young clerk in Kroger blue appeared, probably a high school senior or college freshman. I recognized him from previous visits. A pleasant kid.

I held out my driver’s license. He leaned forward, squinted, read my date of birth, and turned to inform the computer.

That’s a new recording,” I said. “The ‘help-is-on-the-way’ part. I don’t know why it strikes me as funny, but it does.”

Oh, thanks for reminding me,” he said. “I forgot to put on my name tag when I clocked in.”

He reached into a pants pocket and began fishing around.

With an aha, he located the tag, took it out, clipped it to his shirt, and turned so I could see it.

I made this after I heard the recording, like, a million times,” he said.

The badge:

Help

 

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A trip to Walmart, if you’ll permit me this peculiar analogy, is a bit like going to the Mos Eisley spaceport in “Star Wars.”

Not because it’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Au contraire, mes amis. Rather, because Walmart is a societal and cultural melting pot, teeming with activity, always poised to surprise and entertain.

When in Walmart, a person should be observant, because sometimes you strike gold.

————

So, there I was at Walmart, in the electronics department, perusing the laptops that hadn’t been vandalized yet.

A few yards away, a young man and woman in their 20s were rifling through the DVDs in a large bin marked “$3.74.”

Strapped to the young woman’s chest was a googly-eyed infant dressed in pink. The baby was trying gamely to snag one of the DVDs from the bin, emulating Mom and Dad.

Twice, the child succeeded and began to gnaw on the corner of the DVD. Each time, the mom snatched it away and sailed it back into the bin.

After a time, this exchange ensued:

DadHey, look. Alien. That’s an oldie.

MomWe got that already. You paid too much for it. I told you that.

They continued digging.

DadOh, wow! The Terminator! Another classic!

MomWe got that, too.

Dad — I know. I’m just sayin’ it goes way back. Schwarzenegger made The Terminator before he was President.

Mom — Honey, for God’s sake! Schwarzenegger wadn’t never President!

Dad — He damn sure was. He was President of California.

Mom — That is so dumb! Listen, he wadn’t PRESIDENT of California!

Dad — He damn sure was.

Mom — No, he wadn’t! He was MAYOR of California!

Dad — You sure?

Mom — Hell, yes!

Dad — Mayor, President. Same thing.

$3.74

 

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Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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$7.10

Maybe a math major could help me understand this transaction.

Back in January, because my RV had been sitting idle for too long, I decided to take a road trip. Nothing elaborate, just a loop into the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains for a few days. It turned out to be a leisurely, interesting, and pleasant trip.

Usually, I stay at state park campgrounds, which are reliably clean, quiet, and inexpensive. But sometimes you have no choice. The first night, due to the timing, I was obliged to stay at a private RV park in North Carolina. A place called Whispering Pines or something like that.

Whispering Pines was a bad decision. After checking in, I discovered that the bathhouse had been “winterized” and closed for the season. In other words, the pipes had been drained to prevent freezing, and the place was padlocked. It would reopen in the spring.

Sorry, Mr. Camper. Use the shower in your RV.

Which would be fine, except that my RV, like virtually every other RV this side of Tampa, also has been winterized for the season. My shower is closed until spring, too.

I was not a happy camper.

Fortunately, by the second night, I was back in Northeast Georgia, and with great relief, I checked into the campground at Tallulah Gorge State Park. The facilities there, thank you very much, remain operational all year long.

At this point, the aforementioned transaction comes in.

The campground host was a patient, almost serene woman trying to deal with an infant, a toddler, and me at the same time. She said campsites with full hookups were $32 per night, with discounts to senior citizens and veterans.

“Are you a senior or a veteran?”

“Both.”

“Okay, that will be $24 for the night. Also, we’re having a special right now: you can stay a second night for half price. That’s $24 for tonight and $12 for tomorrow night.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“That’s basically a free night,” I said. “How can I turn that down?”

The only problem was minor. The office was closed, and the nice lady had no cash with her.

I gave her $25, and we agreed I could settle up when the office opened the next morning.

Later that evening, when I retired to the RV and watched the news, I learned that heavy rain was moving toward us from the north. It would arrive by mid-morning and hang around for the next 48 hours.

Bummer. Up to that point, the weather had been sunny and mild. In an instant, the idea of being on the road lost its appeal. It was time to head home. After a luxurious morning shower in the bathhouse, of course.

The next day, up early and ready to depart, I saw no reason to wait for the park office to open. I owed $24 for one night and had paid $25. Close enough.

A few hours later, just as the storm caught up with me, I was home.

Three weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived from Tallulah Gorge State Park. Inside was this:

refund

In case you can’t tell, enclosed was $7.10.

First and foremost, refunding the money — taking the trouble to refund it — was a generous, high-minded thing to do. It speaks well of the person responsible and of the park itself.

But, as I understood the situation, I overpaid THEM. Where the idea of $7.10 in my favor came from, I haven’t a clue.

I even sat down with pencil and paper, trying to use dead reckoning to figure it out. This is as far as I got:

– $32
– $24
– $12

– $25

– $7.10

Baffling.

Math was never my thing.

 

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One of my favorite hiking spots these days is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. The SBG, a 300-acre preserve, is pleasant, clean, safe, and close to home. About five miles of well-maintained hiking trails wind through it. It’s a terrific place.

The SBG was created in 1986 by the University of Georgia as a “living laboratory for the study and enjoyment of  plants and nature.” It includes a large tropical conservatory and a variety of formal gardens.

sbg-1

The gardens — native flora, annuals and perennials, azaleas, rhododendrons, groundcover, shade plants, etc. — change with the seasons. They and the conservatory are well worth a visit.

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As for the trails, they’re especially notable because a few years ago, a geology professor and her students uploaded the complete trail system to Google Maps. Thus, the trails appear on your phone as if they were streets, and your location is shown as you progress. Very neat, very handy.

The trails are remote and quiet, but the central part of SBG is plenty active. The formal gardens require constant attention and maintenance. At the same time, various departments of UGA are conducting research and teaching field classes.

Between the maintenance, teaching, research, classes for the public, events for kids, etc., it’s a busy place. People are everywhere, focused on some task or other.

One morning not long ago, I drove over to SBG, parked at a convenient spot, grabbed my water bottle, and set out to walk the outer loop of trails. The day was sunny, the temp mid-70s. Perfect.

Not far from the conservatory, I arrived at the edge of a large field. According to a sign, the field is being restored to open prairie for the benefit of certain plants and wildlife.

As I stood there reading the sign, movement about 20 yards to the left caught my attention. I turned and saw a small brown bird entangled in a net, periodically struggling to escape.

The net resembled a badminton or volleyball net, but had a very fine mesh. It had been erected a few feet in front of a low patch of wild foliage and was almost invisible from a distance. Its purpose, I didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I have no idea how to extricate a trapped bird, but I couldn’t just ignore it. Maybe I could go back to the main office and get help. I walked closer to get a better look.

As I approached the flailing bird, a female voice rang out in the distance. “Sir! Get away! Leave the bird alone!”

I looked up with a start. Striding across the field toward me was a small, youngish woman in all khaki. She was waving insistently and continued to shout instructions.

“Sir, do not touch the bird! Stay away!”

Puzzled, I stood there quietly and waited. When she reached me, I got in the first words: “What are you yelling about? What’s going on?”

“I am an ornithologist,” she said in a grave and decidedly snooty tone. “I am authorized by the State of Georgia, the University, and the Botanical Garden to handle birds.”

“Yeah, but what –”

“I am a member of (she reeled off a few names that may have been professional organizations). I am pursuing my doctorate.”

She reached over and began to examine the bird, cupping it in her hand through the net.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re an ornithologist. Good for you. Why are you fussing me out? What is this all about?”

“You don’t have the skills to handle this bird,” she snapped. “I have the training. I understand how the bones and joints function.”

“Lady, I’m just a hiker. I saw a bird stuck in a net. I walked over for a closer look. Why are you down my throat?”

“I can remove the netting without harming the bird. You can’t.”

“I didn’t touch the damn bird.”

“You would have.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s too tangled in the net. I would’ve gone for help.”

“It’s not very tangled.”

“Lady, I haven’t done a damn thing except show compassion for this poor bird. Your attitude stinks.”

She ignored me and addressed the bird. “Oh, poor little guy,” she cooed. “You’re just a thrasher, not the bird I wanted. I’ll just have to let you go.”

I finally deduced what the drama was all about. “This is your net,” I said as the bird flew away. “It’s here to catch birds.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. All you did was yell and give me your credentials. How could I possibly know what you’re doing out here?”

“This is a [word indecipherable] net. I am involved in a research project. Do you understand now?”

“Well, put up a sign so people will know! Are you afraid the birds will read it and stay away?”

“Sir, no birds will come around as long as we’re standing here. We need to leave. I hope you have a good hike.” She turned and walked away. Briskly, of course.

I didn’t reply, and what I muttered to myself wasn’t nice.

Even on my way home after the hike, I was still steamed. That evening, I Googled the subject of using nets to trap birds. The nets, I learned, are “mist nets.” This is from Wikipedia:

Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net.

When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. Mist nets have shelves created by horizontally strung lines that create a loose, baggy pocket. When a bird or bat hits the net, it falls into this pocket, where it becomes tangled. The purchase and use of mist nets requires permits, which vary according to a country or state’s wildlife regulations.

Mist net handling requires skill to optimally place the nets, avoid entangling nets in vegetation, and properly store nets. Bird and bat handling requires extensive training to avoid injury to the captured animals.

Okay, fine. Clear and concise. Now I know what I didn’t know when Miss Charm blindsided me.

Do us all a favor, lady. Put up a sign.

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sbg-5

 

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Statues

On July 20, 2009, this article appeared in The Times, the daily newspaper of Gainesville, Georgia.

————

Visitor Arrested for Eating Chicken With Fork

Ginny Dietrick fought the law Monday. But this time, she won.

The Louisiana resident was celebrating her 91st birthday by enjoying a lunch of Longstreet Cafe’s finest fried chicken Monday when Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper told Dietrick to put down her fork and listen up — she was under arrest.

Hooper informed Dietrick that it’s against a city ordinance to eat fried chicken, “a culinary delicacy sacred to this municipality, this county, this state, the Southland and this republic,” with anything other than your fingers. The 1961 ordinance was put on city books as a sort of public relations stunt to promote Gainesville as the poultry capital of the world, Hooper said.

Dietrick had Gainesville resident and friend A.C. Marshall to thank for the practical joke. Dietrick can also thank Marshall for setting up her pardon.

Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras was on hand at Longstreet Cafe to dismiss the charges of improper poultry consumption against Dietrick.

And Abit Massey, president-emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation, ordained Dietrick an Honorary Georgia Poultry Princess.

————

It’s true. Eating fried chicken with a utensil is against the law in Gainesville, which is 20 miles from where I live, and which calls itself the “Poultry Capital of the World” and “Queen City of the Mountains.”

Technically, Gainesville isn’t in the mountains. It’s in the foothills, although on a clear day, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon. The “Queen City” thing, therefore, is a bit of a stretch.

The “Poultry Capital” claim, on the other hand, isn’t.

Gainesville is an interesting and in some ways curious place. It is most notable for:

1) the looming presence of Lake Lanier, which was created in its backyard when the Chattahoochee River was dammed in the 1950s, and

2) a robust, billion-dollar poultry processing industry.

Lake Lanier surrounds Gainesville on three sides. Countless coves and inlets intrude deep into the rolling hills. As a result, Gainesville (population 35,000) and Hall County (190,000) are home to some eye-poppingly spectacular and expensive lakefront residential neighborhoods.

As for the poultry industry, it has dominated the local economy for the last 75 years.

Gainesville was founded 200 years ago as Mule Camp Springs, at a spot not far from the Chattahoochee River where two old Indian trails crossed. Before long, the town was renamed Gainesville in honor of General Edmund P. Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812.

Frankly, I like the choice. In those days, President Andrew Jackson was engaged in forcibly removing the native tribes from the Southeast (as many individuals as they could catch, at any rate) and shipping them to the Oklahoma Territory, thus freeing up their land for European settlers.

General Gaines was a veteran of several Indian wars, but to his credit, he publicly opposed the removal policy on moral grounds. His opposition did nothing to stop the removal, of course, and it ended his military career.

Maybe Gaines would be a good choice to replace the villainous Jackson on the $20 bill.

Edmund P. Gaines

Edmund P. Gaines

But I digress.

The poultry industry rose in Gainesville thanks to Jesse Dickson Jewell (1902-1975), a savvy businessman who perfected the process of raising, slaughtering, and marketing the birds.

Jesse Jewell

Jesse Jewell

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Jewell made the chicken-processing industry efficient and profitable. During the post-World War II boom, J. D. Jewell, Inc. became a leading regional employer.

The Jewell processing plant also was among the first local factories to hire black workers.

The Rooster Statue

After Jewell died, the city fathers and business leaders determined to honor both Jewell and the chicken, the source of so much of Gainesville’s fame and prosperity.

The primary north-south avenue through downtown Gainesville was renamed Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Then in 1977, Gainesville opened Georgia Poultry Park, fittingly located on Jesse Jewell Parkway, not far from the center of town.

The centerpiece of the quiet little park is a 25-foot marble obelisk topped by a handsome three-foot-tall bronze rooster.

Poultry Park-1

Poultry Park-2

Jesse Jewell would be proud.

The Rabbit Statue

Although most Gainesvillians are proud of their poultry-related heritage, resentment simmered in the northeast corner of the city, in a tiny neighborhood where chickens were less revered.

Around 1900, well before poultry’s rise to prominence in Gainesville, local farmer David Highsmith began raising and selling rabbits to the citizenry. Most people were poor, and rabbits were a cheap and plentiful food item. Highsmith’s business prospered, and soon, he dubbed his little community Rabbittown.

Highsmith remained in the rabbit business through the 1920s. When he died, the business died with him. Rabbittown was absorbed into Gainesville and largely was forgotten…

… except in the hearts of Rabbittown’s residents. In 1993, a few local businessmen, probably irritated by the presence of the bronze rooster in Poultry Park, erected their own monument: a 20-foot-tall rabbit, perched on its haunches, one paw raised in greeting to passersby.

Rabbit statue-1

Whereas the rooster statue is a dramatized, but realistic depiction, the rabbit statue is… more like a gray version of a chocolate Easter bunny.

The statue is made of Styrofoam, covered with a layer of fiberglass mesh and coated with synthetic stucco for preservation. It stands in the parking lot of the Rabbittown Cafe, a local favorite for home cookin’.

David Highsmith would be proud.

The Tiger Statue

Tiger? Yes, Gainesville also has a tiger statue, said to be the largest in the world.

The bronze tiger, installed in 2013 on the campus of Brenau University, is 7′ 6″ tall and 14′ long. It rests on a granite base and weighs 2,200 pounds.

Tiger statue

If you sense an interesting story here, your instinct is correct.

Brenau is a prestigious private university founded in Gainesville in 1878. Today, in addition to the Gainesville campus, Brenau has six other locations around Georgia and one Jacksonville. Enrollment is about 3,500 students.

The statue represents Brenau’s Golden Tiger mascot. It was a gift from Irwin “Ike” Belk, former head of the Belk Department Store chain. Apparently, Ike’s hobby after retirement was to donate “world’s largest” statues to colleges and universities.

Over the years, he placed 40 such statues at various institutions, including a giant flying falcon at the Air Force Academy.

Brenau students voted to name the bronze tiger “Lucille” after the wife of a former university president.

I close with one last interesting fact, a connection between Brenau and the Jewell family.

Jesse Jewell’s mother, Mary Dickson, worked as an art teacher at Brenau (which was a women’s college until the 1960s) before she married Edgar Jewell. Consequently, the Jewell family always maintained close ties to Brenau.

Mary died in 1953. In the early 1960s, when Jesse sold the company and retired, he used a large portion of his fortune to establish a scholarship fund at Brenau. Over the years, the fund has enabled many local women to attend Brenau.

Mary Jewell would be proud.

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