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Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category

One thing that irritates me bigly is when I discover I have a knowledge gap about something — when I find I’m uninformed on a subject commonly known to others. It shows that I’m not as educated and erudite as I like to think. I hate that.

Recently, while on a road trip, I got schooled about something new — new to me — and I’ve been pouting ever since.

It happened earlier this month on a trip to Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

(Before the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were dammed to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the place was called Land Between the Rivers. But that isn’t the thing I got schooled about.)

Among the amenities and attractions at LBL is the Woodlands Nature Station, a small zoo that houses a variety of orphaned or injured animals. In residence there are hawks, owls, deer, groundhogs, a bald eagle, a coyote, and other critters that no longer can survive in the wild.

I found it interesting that, during the day, the raptors are not caged, but instead are restrained by tethers. Each bird has a perch and is free to move in a radius of about five feet. Every day, just before closing time, the birds are transferred to their night-time shelters in the “Parade of Raptors.” A clever bit of marketing there.

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So I bought a ticket and spent half an hour wandering around the place. The woodsy setting was attractive and pleasant, and the animals seemed unstressed, which was nice.

Before long, in a clearing between the wild turkey pen and the possum enclosure, I arrived at a large turtle pond. Submerged in the pond were three large alligator snapping turtles and a dozen smaller turtles of various types.

(The jaw power of an alligator snapper is impressive. An adult can bite through a broom handle.)

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My timing was pretty good. Two employees were just arriving with a bucket of lunch for the turtles.

What do the turtles at Woodlands Nature Station eat? On the menu that day was dead mice.

It seems natural enough to feed dead mice to the raptors, the coyote, and other critters, but to the turtles? I would expect turtles to be fed fish, insects, worms, or maybe commercial turtle food. Mice? Intriguing.

With some difficulty, the male employee, a portly gentleman, assumed a sitting position beside the pond near a group of the smaller turtles. He reached into the bucket and withdrew a dead mouse. Holding it by the tail (Of course. How else would you pick up a dead mouse?), he dangled it in the water in front of one of the turtles.

Here ya go, Lulu,” he cooed. “I got a nice mouse for ya.”

Remaining underwater, Lulu propelled herself forward, grabbed the mouse, and quickly retreated from the group; the other turtles had taken notice.

Better feed Alice next so she don’t steal from the others,” the female employee said.

The man dangled a mouse in front of Alice. Alice snatched it and promptly swam away.

By then, the other turtles had assembled in a rough semi-circle, waiting to be fed. One by one, the man presented them with lunch. Then it was time to feed the alligator snappers.

Hey, y’all — wake up!” the man called out. He struggled to his feet and moved the mouse bucket closer to where the three snappers were snoozing. They noted his presence and came to attention.

As the man doled out mice to the snappers, some of the smaller turtles arrived, hoping to score again. The man tried to maintain order and keep the turtles apart. From a nearby bench, the female employee offered advice and occasionally admonished a turtle for getting too close to the business end of a snapper.

Up to that point, I had been quietly observing. I finally spoke up.

The turtles really like those mice,” I said. “I didn’t expect that.”

Oh, yeah, they love ’em,” the man replied.

Where in the world do you get dead mice?” I asked. “What’s the source?”

We buy ’em wholesale.”

Wholesale? Mice?”

Oh, yeah. For places like us, with animals to feed, it’s crucial. We couldn’t operate otherwise. We place the orders automatically. The merchandise comes frozen.”

Of course.”

Anyway, that’s the new thing I learned on my road trip: there is an entire world out there, previously unbeknownst to me, in which large national companies — nay, large worldwide companies — raise mice, rats, chicks, quail, and even little bunny rabbits to execute, freeze, and sell as a food source.

Why wasn’t I aware of this? Because the logistics of animal food supply never appeared on my radar screen. I’ve never had a bird, turtle, or snake as a pet, never had to consider the food issue.

When I got home a few days later, I Googled the dead mouse business and got further informed. In the trade, the product is called feeder mice.

And, as a business, it makes sense. Selling feeder mice is just a case of meeting an industry need. A matter of demand and supply. It’s all there — production, R&D, purchasing, marketing, finance, distribution.

Systems have to be in place to euthanize the little things and sort them by category — size, weight, color, and so on. The merchandise must be properly preserved, packaged, shipped, and delivered. And certified as healthy and disease-free.

What, you ask, is the cost of a dead mouse? There are variables aplenty — size, weight, nutritional content, quantity ordered.

As I write this, RodentPro.com has a special sale on extra-small “pinky” mice, sold in bags of 100. Normally 35 cents each, they are now available for the amazing low price of 24 cents each!

If pinkies are too small for your needs, RodentPro sells small adult “weanling” mice for 65 cents each (bags of 50) and large adult mice (choice of brown, white, or hairless) for 75 cents (bags of 25).

If the sale ends before you have a chance to act, don’t worry. The other big names in the business (Mice Direct, American Rodent Supply, The Big Cheese Rodent Factory, etc.) are sure to have special offers that interest you.

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Like I said, it’s mortifying to discover something that is new to me, but common knowledge to others.

On the other hand, looking at the bright side, at least I’ve narrowed my knowledge gap a bit.

 

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Duel Epilogue

I’m here to report that my eight-year battle to eliminate an unwelcome tree in a local cemetery, a tree that had no business being there and was pushing a tombstone askew, a battle I thought I had won in 2014, in fact continued for four more years.

I didn’t reckon on the stump. The stump turned out to be remarkably stubborn.

The short version of the story is this: I noticed the tree in 2006, when I first moved to Jefferson. It was growing next to the grave of a pastor who died a century ago. It had grown so large that the headstone was beginning to tilt slightly.

No one else seemed to be doing anything about it, so I took it upon myself to eliminate the tree. In June 2014, after a lengthy campaign, I declared victory. At last, the blasted thing showed no more signs of life.

The complete story is in a celebratory blog post I wrote in 2014.

At the time, I assumed the stump would disintegrate fairly quickly. The day would come, I told myself confidently, when I would be able to uproot it with a swift kick, and the pastor could rest undisturbed again.

Secure in that knowledge, I stopped at the cemetery every few months to assess things. Each time, I would administer a kick in hopes of dislodging the stump. Each time, I left disappointed.

The seasons came and went. The stump did, in fact, dry out and crack. It became gray and shrunken. Random chunks broke off. No bark remained.

Twice, I gave it a few vigorous whacks with a sledgehammer,* but still to no avail. The stump remained as solid as a fire hydrant.

Then, about a year ago, I got the first indication that victory might be near. (Nearer. Nearing.) When I administered the customary swift kick, I heard a sharp crack, and the stump moved.

I still couldn’t dislodge it, but for the first time, it was slightly loose and wobbly.

Several trips to the cemetery later, just a few weeks ago, I administered the kick that proved to be final and victorious.

One evening after supper, on a lark, I drove to the cemetery and walked out to the pastor’s grave. There was the stump, old and worn, still wobbly, but still, literally, holding its ground.

This time, my kick succeeded.

I applied it smartly, as usual. To my amazement, the stump popped out of the ground, sailed a few feet, and landed on the grass with a thump. I stood there, blinking in disbelief.

After 12 years, the deed was done. The tree and the stump — gone at last.

And, by God, I prevailed. That tree was tenacious, but not as tenacious as me.

* In hindsight, I realize that entering a cemetery with a sledgehammer was a foolish move. I could have been arrested for intent to deface grave markers.

Stump

Rocky 1, tree 0.

 

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One of my go-to spots for a pleasant walk in the woods these days is Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. SCNC is a 225-acre park, half woodlands and half wetlands, located where Sandy Creek and the North Oconee River merge on their way south.

The park features several miles of trails, a visitor center, a small museum, classrooms, and a gift shop. Activities include classes on woodsy lore, programs for kids, nature walks, etc. It’s a good place to get your nature fix.

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By now, I know the park thoroughly. I’m familiar with all the trails, the terrain, and the various features that help make the place interesting — such as a reconstructed log house from the early 1800s and the ruins of an old brick-making factory.

A topo map of the park would show a long, elevated center ridge dropping off to lowlands on both sides. The river on the west and the creek on the east have created extensive wetlands, some seasonal and some permanent.

Even in dry seasons, the wetland areas are mostly boggy and impassable. And, being important habitat for plants and animals, the swamps and ponds are the pride of the park staff.

Claypit Pond

A century ago, long before the park existed, human activity had a major impact on this locale. In 1906, the Georgia Brick Company built a factory here on a hill overlooking Sandy Creek. Using a newly-patented “tunnel kiln,” which was six feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the company produced 25,000 bricks per day.

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Ruins of the old brick factory. Ironically, a fire put the company out of business in 1923.

This being North Georgia, the red clay soil needed to manufacture bricks is, literally, underfoot everywhere. Georgia Brick Co. excavated it at the bottom of the hill where the factory stood.

As the years passed, the excavation site became a small lake thanks to rainfall, flooding from Sandy Creek, and the work of beavers. It’s known today as Claypit Pond.

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Claypit Pond.

The south end of Claypit Pond has a well-defined shore, but the north end does not. It tapers off to swamp and bog, varying with the amount of water present at the time.

Now that I’m aware of the pond’s ebbs and flows, I have a habit of noting its size when I go walking at the park. The difference from visit to visit is easy to see.

The Beavers

Beavers are fascinating creatures. As you probably know, they are large rodents adapted for an aquatic life. Adults usually weight 40 or 50 pounds and live 10 to 20 years.

Beavers have large, sharp front teeth — incisors — that are designed for serious incising. Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their large, flat tails are used (1) as a rudder when they swim, (2) as a prop when they are sitting upright, and (3), when they smack the water sharply, as a way to warn the group of danger.

A beaver’s mission in life is to modify the environment to its advantage, usually by building dams. At a spot where water is running, the beaver will collect fallen branches, cut down small trees, and assemble them to block the moving water.

Why? Because it creates a pond of deeper water that helps protect the lodge and the beavers from predators. It also creates a new area of calm water where aquatic vegetation will grow, thus providing a food source for the beavers.

In addition, new vegetation will sprout around the edges of the pond — another source of food and building material. As a bonus, the new vegetation filters contaminants from the water in the pond.

Typically, beavers eat the tender parts of the plants they harvest, store some for future consumption, and use the rest as construction material. They are most active at night, working from sundown to sunrise and resting in their lodges during the day.

Beavers have lived in Claypit Pond for as long as the staff can recall. The beaver lodge in the middle of the pond is about six feet high and is hard to miss.

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A typical colony consists of four to eight related beavers. They will accept no outsiders in the group and will drive off any newcomers who try to settle too close to their territory.

When their own offspring become sexually mature at about two years old, they are booted out of the colony. In most cases, the youngsters go out into the world, find a mate and a suitable spot, and start a colony of their own.

Apparently, that is what happened at SCNC this year.

If the park staff is right, and they probably are, a young male recently left the Claypit Pond colony, moved to a spot north of the Audubon Society Bird Blind (see map), and constructed a new dam. And a fine dam it is, worthy of a seasoned veteran beaver.

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The new dam flooded the swampy area behind it, creating a new pond that, for the moment, extends north almost to the high ground at Cook’s Trail.

Accordingly, an area of the park that once looked like this…

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… now looks like this.

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The question now: is the pond a permanent feature? Will it survive the dry season? I’m curious to find out.

Beavers are a good example of why we should be in awe of the natural world. Amazing ecological systems are all around us — systems that evolved to perform important functions, even if we don’t understand them — systems that can perform virtual feats of magic when people don’t get in the way.

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A few weeks ago, someone left this stone next to the Claypit Pond Trail. I don’t know if it’s an offering, a statement, a celebration, or what, but I sure agree with the sentiment.

 

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In Remembrance

This is a feel-good story about people and families, although it’s tempered with a measure of sadness. It seems fitting as we enter a new year, a time when the old steps aside for the new.

———

Here in Jefferson, the local hotspot on weekends is the Pendergrass Flea Market, billed as the largest indoor flea market in Georgia. Indeed, the place is sprawling, chaotic, and crowded.

PFM

Over time, the PFM has evolved into a social gathering spot for area Hispanics, and, to a lesser extent, various Asian groups. Much of the merchandise reflects that fact.

Maybe you aren’t in the market for Mexican pottery, oriental spices, cell phone cases, boom boxes, Iron Maiden tee-shirts, imported toys, imitation jewelry, pony rides, tools, tires, or live chickens, but the fresh produce is plentiful, and the food court has an array of authentic international cuisine.

The PFM began as an ordinary flea market operated, then as now, by Anglos. Likewise, while many of the vendors are Hispanic and Asian, just as many are locals of European stock.

One of them is my amiable friend Tony, a fellow divorcé and retiree.

Tony is a builder, a tinkerer, a hands-on kind of guy. In the same way that Trump golfs and I busy myself with wordsmithing, Tony enjoys woodworking. Behind his house is an elaborate workshop where he spends his days, and many nights, building planters, birdhouses, benches, side tables, and whatever else strikes his fancy.

On Saturdays and Sundays, you will find Tony at his booth at Pendergrass Flea Market, selling his creations.

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Tony rented the booth a few years ago as an experiment, to see if sales would make it worthwhile. He seemed hopeful, but not optimistic. And, I gather, sales were slow at first.

But he stayed with it, and, over time, business improved. And continued improving. Soon, he was spending much of the week in the workshop to prepare for the weekend ahead. He also branched out and began making seasonal items for the various holidays.

One Saturday before Christmas, I stopped at the flea market to see how Tony was doing. His booth was brimming with woodcraft, including quite a few Christmas-themed items. Most notable: dozens of colorful paintings on rustic 4”x4” pieces of wood — Santas, Christmas trees, snowflakes, snowmen, elves, and more.

Had Tony painted them? Did his skills transcend woodworking?

No, he said, they were painted by his mom, an artist and author who lived on the other side of Atlanta.

To be clear, I know Tony only casually. I knew little about his family or his daily life. His mother was an artist and a writer? Interesting.

This is what Tony told me about his mother Marge.

She was born in Ohio, got married, had four children. She was a Registered Nurse by profession. Eventually, the family moved to Kennesaw, Georgia, where she worked at a local hospital until her retirement. Before long, she founded a private nursing service and ran it for the next decade.

Marge was an accomplished painter, working in oil, acrylic, and watercolor. She published five books. Her cooking skills and singing voice were widely acknowledged.

She was widowed in 2002. In 2015, at age 85, she toured Europe with friends.

Tony and his siblings were quite prolific. Marge had 13 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

In early 2017, Marge called Tony with a business proposition. If he would give her a supply of rustic wood squares, she would paint them with scenes suitable for Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays. Tony could sell them in his booth, and they could split the profits.

This was not a lady fading into her dotage.

Tony made and delivered several dozen 4”x4” squares. She demanded more.

He furnished more. She demanded more again.

In the end, she painted about 350 wood squares, all initialed, dated, and equipped with a ribbon for hanging. As each holiday arrived, Tony displayed and sold the appropriate paintings.

One of her favorite subjects, he told me, was an angel. Marge had painted about 50 of them. Tony figured they would be the hit of the Christmas season.

In November, after a long life of good health, Marge suffered a sudden and fatal stroke at age 87.

Because of his mother’s fondness for the angels, Tony decided not to sell them. Instead, he gave one to each of the 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in remembrance of Marge.

The proceeds from the sale of her other paintings will go to her favorite charities.

When Tony finished telling me all this, I turned away and began perusing Marge’s paintings. It helped me maintain my composure.

At that point, I badly wanted one of her paintings. Any would do. I chose this one.

Snowman

I may leave it up after the holidays. Just, you know, in remembrance.

 

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As the Dog Barks

As the Dog Barks: A Soap Opera.” That was how my son Britt described the events that unfolded recently when I began looking for another dog.

You have your dramas, I have mine.

———

Early in 2016, I lost my friend Paco, the best dog I ever saw. The loss was profound and painfully slow to diminish. Even now, if I let my guard down, tears will flow.

For a year and a half after that, my heart told me it wasn’t time to get another dog. I checked often, and the answer was always the same: not yet.

I don’t know what finally precipitated the change, but one day, I realized it was time.

My first choice was a rescue dog, a young adult, male or female. I would consider any non-aggressive pooch that I connected with and would be content as a roommate and hiking buddy.

So I spread the word. I told the people at Paco’s kennel, his vet, and other places around town to be on the lookout for me.

I began checking the local animal shelters. I found Paco at a shelter; maybe luck would be with me again. Twice, I sent applications to local canine adoption agencies. They seem to be everywhere.

Two months passed. Over that time, I inquired about and looked at an array of adoptable dogs. But I didn’t come across even one that seemed right.

At that point, I began to question my tactics. And I turned, rather reluctantly, to a resource I had been holding in abeyance.

My ex-wife Deanna has a friend in South Carolina who breeds and trains border collies for herding competition. This woman is truly connected. She knows every border collie person in the Southeast and most of their dogs.

As Deanna explained, when people in the business identify a dog that doesn’t have a strong enough herding instinct, or simply lacks the skills, they don’t waste time trying to train it. They re-home the dog as a pet. And Deanna’s friend always knows when such dogs are available.

Why was I reluctant to contact the friend? Because I would prefer to save a shelter dog. This time, that didn’t seem to be happening, so I emailed the woman and told her my story.

Within 30 minutes, she replied with the name of a possible adoptee.

The timeline of events tells the story…

— Saturday 10:30 AM. I email the trainer.

— Saturday 11:00 AM. The trainer gives me the name of a local man who owns Trace, a 5-year-old male border collie. Trace suffered a hip injury that hasn’t responded to treatment. He is no longer suitable for herding competition. The owner wants to find Trace a new home.

— Saturday 2:15 PM. I email the owner to inquire about Trace.

— Saturday 7:30 PM. I call the owner’s home phone. No answer.

— No response from the owner on Sunday. I am puzzled.

— Monday 11:45 AM. Owner answers my email and provides details about Trace. Owner says he brought in a new male border collie to train, and Trace resents it. “Instant fight.”

— Monday 2:00 PM. I reply and ask owner when I can see Trace.

— No word from owner for several days. I am perplexed.

— Friday 8:00 PM. Email arrives from owner. He provides contact information and asks when I would like to see Trace. I am baffled.

— Friday 8:30 PM. I reply and suggest Monday morning.

— Saturday 11:00 AM. Owner replies that he prefers Sunday afternoon.

— Sunday 10:30 AM. Owner calls. He apologizes and says he has changed his mind. He is too fond of Trace to let him go. I tell him I understand and wish him luck. I am bewildered.

— Sunday 7:15 PM. Owner emails me to apologize again, this time for “letting emotions block good sense.” He has re-reconsidered. He suggests that I keep Trace for a week as a trial. I accept. I am mystified.

Until the trial period began the following Friday, I had not seen any photos of Trace. He turned out to be a striking, classic black-and-white border collie with a velvety coat and hypnotic eyes that would give pause to any sheep.

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At first, he was uncertain and uneasy, having been abandoned in a strange place with a strange human. But he soon adjusted and warmed to me. He was friendly and affectionate.

I gave him plenty of attention and ample time to run in the back yard. When I drove to town on errands, he rode with me. Twice, we went walking around Jefferson. At night, he slept beside me. A daily routine took shape.

By the third day, I tried leaving him at home alone while I went to lunch. When I returned, he was extra happy to see me, but nothing in the house had been disturbed.

On the morning of day four, when I let him outside, he and a squirrel surprised each other. The squirrel quickly escaped up a tree. Trace appeared shocked.

He circled and paced in hound mode, looking up, seemingly fascinated that creatures ran freely in the treetops. Maybe he had no experience with squirrels. Are sheep pastures normal habitat for them? Beats me.

From then on, his first act when he went outside was to look skyward and check for movement in the canopy.

Having a dog around the house again felt right. Trace was good company.

But finally, reluctantly, I had to admit that he was not The One.

I came to that conclusion because Trace is all border collie — an exuberant, high-energy, dynamo of a dog. And the more comfortable he became, the more his border collie nature surfaced.

My neighborhood is secluded, but kids, dogs, cats, and squirrels are everywhere. Even deer are common.

It’s quiet here, but the silence is often broken by the sounds of children, passing cars, delivery vehicles, school buses, the mail truck, and more.

Trace was aware of every sight and sound, eyes ablaze, ears at attention. Sometimes he reacted silently, sometimes he barked or growled.

It’s fair, too, to call him high-maintenance. Briefly, he would be content to watch me do chores, putter around the house, or sit and read. Before long, however, he would appear with a tennis ball, ready to play.

Or he would bark to go outside, only to decide that nothing of interest was there, and he was ready to come back in.

The reality: Trace is a trained herding dog who would be out of a job in my world. Worse, considering my routine and habits, he would spend a fair amount of time at home alone. I couldn’t always take him with me. That was worrisome.

All in all, I was compelled to conclude that I wasn’t right for Trace, and he wasn’t right for me.

In retrospect, I had been fooling myself. My previous two border collies were mellow and low-key, but they were not typical of the breed. Finding another border collie like them would defy the odds. I simply made a mistake.

The decision made, I turned to the task of breaking the news to Trace’s owner. Composing the email wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure I explained my reasons properly.

But it didn’t matter.

This is proof there is a God,” the owner replied. “I was trying to compose a letter that would convince you to let me have my dog back.”

Trace is gone now, back with his owner. After they left, I put away the food and water bowls, the treats, and the toys. The house is quiet again.

Dogwise, I am back in search mode. No telling what will happen next.

Hasta la vista, Trace. You’re a very good boy. I’m glad we crossed paths.

Trace-2

You have your dramas, I have mine.

 

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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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