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Archive for the ‘Recollections Personal’ Category

The day I graduated from college in June 1964, having gone through the ROTC program, I also was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Eventually, I would be called to active duty for a four-year commitment.

In my case, eventually was 30 days later at Cannon AFB in Clovis, New Mexico.

At the time, I was driving a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. It was my first car, a gift from my parents a year earlier.

The Bel Air looked great, but, unfortunately, wasn’t so good mechanically. Driving from Georgia to Clovis took its toll. So did taking weekend trips around New Mexico. The first time I drove home to Georgia on leave, the Bel Air seriously struggled.

It was time for new wheels — the first car purchased with my own money.

Being a debonaire young lieutenant-about-town, I needed a vehicle suitable for my station. So, in March 1965, after much deliberation, I signed a deal with the Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealer in Clovis to buy a 1965 Mercury Comet Caliente convertible — brand new, custom-ordered from the factory.

In Spanish, in case you didn’t know, caliente means hot. Mostly, the word is used in the sense of spirited.

My Caliente was carnival red with a white top, white leatherette interior, bucket seats, dual mufflers, automatic transmission, and a 289 cubic inch V8 engine.

Between the small frame and the big engine, that puppy could leave rubber anywhere, anytime, even without a clutch to pop.

This is a 1965 Comet Caliente, carnival red with white top and interior:

She indeed was caliente.

What, you ask, did I pay for that fine car in 1965? Well, the sticker price was $3,335.60.

To prove it, here’s the sticker.

As for the purchase price, I must have been on my game that day. The dealer and I settled on $2,550.00 cash.

To prove it, here’s the check.

In case you were wondering, $2,550 in 1965 was the equivalent of about $23,000 in today’s dollars.

The Caliente proved to be a terrific vehicle. She and I had some good times together, and I remember her fondly. She was beautiful, fun, and reliable. Not to mention built like a tank.

I mean that in the kindest sense. That car was constructed of premium-grade steel that a sledgehammer probably couldn’t dent. Not that I ever put a scratch on her.

The auto industry stopped using heavy steel to build cars decades ago. Pity.

Today, I drive a Subaru Crosstrek, and I love it. It’s super reliable and has amazing electronic safety and convenience features. The Caliente, like all cars from olden times, pales in comparison to modern vehicles like the Crosstrek.

Except in terms of sheer caliente.

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When I was a kid, during times when my family was not living overseas, we went to Savannah several times a year to see relatives.

I had no problem with that and always looked forward to those visits. Most of my relatives were, and are, good people. And Savannah is a fun place.

One memorable character from those Savannah trips was George, a black man who delivered the mail in the Gordonston neighborhood. George was old from my perspective, but could have been anywhere from his 40s to his 60s.

He was graying and a bit heavy, and the exertion often got to him. But he was a kindly, cheerful man who knew the neighborhood kids by name, including visiting Smiths.

George looked a lot like Uncle Ben, whose benevolent image adorned packages of Uncle Ben’s Rice for decades.

That benign image, by the way, was based on Frank Brown, the maître d’ at a Chicago restaurant frequented in the 1940s by the founder of Uncle Ben’s Rice. The founder believed — correctly, it seems — that Mr. Brown had a certain je ne sais quoi that would help sales.

The personae of both Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima were retired from the advertising business in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. Uncle Ben’s Rice became Ben’s Original Rice, minus that familiar face. The Aunt Jemima brand was renamed Pearl Milling Co., the company’s original name from 1889, and the visage of a smiling Jemima is history.

George the mailman had a regular routine in Gordonston. Scattered around the neighborhood were streetside mailboxes where trucks dropped off the day’s mail. George transferred the mail to a large leather pouch slung over his shoulder, made the deliveries (either into front porch mailboxes or through mail slots in the door), and repeated the process until the job was done for the day.

Later, George and his peers were given rolling carts in place of the pouches. And at some point, he retired. By the time I was a teen, most door-to-door delivery had been replaced by mailboxes at the street and mail trucks.

I can still hear George’s gravelly voice and Geechee accent when he greeted me. “Hey there, Rocky! Y’all back in town for a visit! How’s Lee and your mama and daddy?”

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Last month, I wrote a post entitled “Going Places” that underscored the atypical nature of my childhood. I’d like to elaborate on that.

One of the main reasons I turned out the way I did — which, in my opinion, is pretty okay — was growing up as a military brat. In my case, an Air Force brat.

A brat in this sense is a child raised by a parent or parents serving in the armed forces. It’s a term of endearment, not a pejorative.

Because military service involves frequent reassignments, brats rarely live in one place for very long. Thus, sociologists describe them as a “modern nomadic subculture.”

Today, according to the Department of Defense, about 15 million Americans — out of a population of 330 million — are current or former military brats. They range in age from infancy to the 90s.

Brat life bears little resemblance to civilian life, and it is rarely seen by the civilian world. Let me give you a peek behind the curtain.

Naturally, the overriding factor in the brat world is the military connection. The military mission is of paramount importance. Military rituals dominate. Military slang permeates the language.

Further, every military installation has areas that are off limits and protected for security reasons, such as flight lines and weapons armories. Armed guards and surveillance are part of life.

I’ve already mentioned the constant mobility. When a military parent is transferred to a new assignment — usually every few years, sometimes more often — the family packs up and moves. All around you, on a regular basis, friends and neighbors are departing and being replaced.

Like many brats, I was born in a military hospital. When I was new to the world, my family moved so often that I literally have no hometown.

Another big factor in brat life is housing. Depending on circumstances, a military family will be either assigned to on-base housing or given a stipend to live in a nearby town. Either way, family life is closely tied to the base because of the services provided. Virtually all military installations have their own facilities for shopping, dining, recreation, and, when you live overseas, schools.

The odds are high that you will live outside the US. One study found that over 90 percent of brats have lived in one foreign country, over 60 percent have lived in two, and over 30 percent have lived in three. Me, I spent a total of five years in Japan, France, and Germany.

The overseas experience, psychologists say, leaves the average brat more adaptable, more accepting of other people and other lifestyles, and with a more realistic worldview. I’ll buy that.

Further, brats have been shown to have lower delinquency rates, higher scores on standardized tests, and higher IQs than their civilian counterparts. Whereas 24 percent of civilians have college degrees, 60 percent of brats do.

The brat life does have negative aspects. Brats regularly leave friends behind, knowing they may never see them again. This is the reality, and a brat learns to let go of the past and embrace the present and the future.

Another negative I always found troubling is the military system of strict segregation by rank. According to military theory, this is necessary to maintain unit discipline. But the system seems unnecessarily draconian.

Classism manifests throughout the military world. In the military, you are required to be deferential to anyone of higher rank. The system is so strict that for an officer to “fraternize” with an enlisted person is illegal under military law.

For years, it was common on military installations for the families of officers and enlisted people to have separate seating in base chapels and movie theaters. That practice mercifully was ended. Likewise, the system of separate and unequal officers clubs and enlisted clubs is fading out.

But the inequality in housing remains. Housing for officers is always superior to that of enlisted personnel. And housing for generals and admirals is always the most lavish of all.

Overseas, the US military maintains school systems for American dependents, but the children of officers and enlisted personnel attend the same schools.

From my experience, it was rare for brats to judge their peers by the rank of their parents. To our credit, we usually formed our social groups for positive reasons, not based on the military caste system.

Even so, I can remember a few classmates, mostly the children of higher-ranking officers, who were too full of themselves. Jerks are everywhere, and these were immature, teenage jerks. Like bullies, most were not tolerated well socially.

So, growing up as a military brat was a unique adventure and a life-changing experience.

The brat life made me who I am. And, hey — I like who I am.

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Several decades ago, I met a man in Buford, Georgia, born and raised there, who had never been to Atlanta. Atlanta is a mere 35 miles from Buford via Interstate 85.

In fairness, he avoided Atlanta because he considered it an evil place full of crime and villainy.

But in addition, he had never set foot out of Georgia. He was in his 40s, an auto mechanic, married with kids. He was content and saw nothing unusual about his situation.

I, on the other hand, found it mind-boggling. Having been to, and lived in, so many different places in my life, I simply was astounded.

When I was a kid, my dad was in the Air Force, and we moved often. Very often. Growing up, I lived in Macon, Jacksonville, Savannah, Japan, Virginia, Florida, France, and Germany, in that order.

During our two years in Japan, we traveled the islands regularly. During our three years in Europe, we visited Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, England, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

When we returned to the US in 1960, I spent the next four years at the University of Georgia in Athens. It was the longest I’d lived in one place in my life.

On the About Mr. Write page on this blog, I describe myself as a frequent road-tripper. I mean that literally.

Since 1992, when I finally began documenting my travels, I have taken 134 multiple-day trips somewhere around the country. That’s about four trips annually. In other words, for the last 30 years, I’ve hit the road every three months.

I have visited every state in the US except Alaska. Especially after my divorce, I made it a point to seek out new places, just to see, explore, and experience.

As you may know, I have a special affinity for the Southwest, and Grand Canyon is my go-to vacation spot. As I am quick to note, I’ve been to Grand Canyon 28 times in the last 28 years.

I’ve probably driven every paved road in Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern halves of Utah and Colorado.

At some point, I began taking trips to fill in the blanks, going to New England, the Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf coast, the Appalachians, Montana, and so on.

Lately, COVID has cramped my style a bit. Age and arthritis have slowed me down, too. I don’t think my traveling days are over quite yet, but when they are, I’ll be content because of the memories.

Stored in my head are decades of superlative memories, many of them documented by the thousands of transparencies, prints, and digital images I’ve amassed — and which, I assure you, are carefully preserved and organized.

Like all of us, I am a walking memory vault of my unique experiences.

I am blessed to be a son, brother, nephew, cousin, father, and grandfather. Family memories will mean the most, always. But the memories of my travels and adventures on the road are in a special category.

I thank God I’m not the Buford mechanic.

Recently, on a travel website, I read an article entitled, “The 16 Most Beautiful Places in the US.”

Listed were Acadia, Antelope Canyon, Badlands, Everglades, Florida Keys, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Horseshoe Bend, Mammoth Cave, Monument Valley, Niagara Falls, Shoshone Falls, White Sands, Yellowstone, and Zion.

A fine selection. But they should have made it 17 and included Yosemite. For the record, I’ve visited all 17.

Okay, that said, I am compelled to include some photos…


The trail to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah, follows that ridge.

A black bear and her cub, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
In the village of Supai in Havasu Canyon, Arizona, few dogs are house pets. Most live free-range and are cared for informally by the community.

The French Quarter, New Orleans.

A boy swimming nose to nose with a manatee in the city of Crystal River, Florida. Up to 1,000 manatees winter there because the water in the bay is warmer than the Gulf.

A nice Monet in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
A row of seastacks on the Pacific coast.

Native Americans sell their art daily at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Hermit Rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. When the sediment levels from upstream tributaries are low, the water is emerald green.

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My late Uncle Allan was mellow about most things, so I don’t think he would mind me sharing this bit of information about him.

Allan was an amiable, soft-spoken, non-judgmental person. He never married, and when I was a kid, the possibility that he was gay occurred to me. The evidence suggests, however, that he was quite a ladies’ man — for certain in his later years and, for all I know, his entire life.

Allan lived in Jacksonville for decades and moved back to Savannah after he retired. Rather than living in the Smith family home with Aunt Betty, he moved into a retirement home on the marsh east of Savannah.

On one of my visits to the home, a young male employee told me Allan was very popular — very popular — with the ladies.

Women residents of the home outnumbered the men five to one. Allan not only was single, but also was a fit, good-looking guy. The employee said Allan was in constant demand and was seen with a variety of ladies.

Over the years, Allan lived in three Savannah retirement homes. Apparently, he was the resident ladies’ man in all three. His mission, it appears, was to make all those lonely ladies happy. Performing a public service, you might say.

After Allan died and we were dealing with his belongings, I discovered a stash of condoms in a cigar box in the back of a dresser drawer. These were new, unexpired condoms, mind you, and plenty of them. I made the stash disappear before Aunt Betty could find them.

It pleased and amused me greatly to know that Allan was a Don Juan. But, discreet fellow that I am, I never mentioned it to anyone. Until now. The man deserves recognition.

It’s always the quiet ones.


James Allan Smith (1918-2008)

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I always figured I inherited my abilities as a writer, and my enjoyment of writing, from my black sheep maternal grandfather, Bill Horne.

I say black sheep because Bill walked out on his family when my mom was a toddler, and worse, never again tried to contact her. Based on the evidence, he was a jerk.

With that information on the table, I will move on.

Bill worked as a railroad dispatcher, but he was a writer at heart. For years, he wrote, and occasionally sold, fiction and non-fiction in various markets. Mom had carbon copies of several of his unpublished works, all of which I later inherited. Some were science fiction stories, some were essays about the great outdoors.

One of his most memorable efforts was a science fiction novella entitled “The Germ-Beast of Insanity.”

In it, an Indiana Jones type hero goes to a museum where a hair from the head of Confucius is on display. The hero shrinks himself down to microscopic size, and, atop the hair, battles the germ-beast of insanity. I am not making this up.

I don’t recall much more about the story, except that the hero prevails and returns to normal size. I don’t remember how he discovered the germ-beast, how he shrunk himself, or if other germ-beasts existed.

Bill Horne with a slingshot, place and date unknown.

I haven’t read Bill’s stories in years. The carbon copies, I’m sad to say, are missing. Years ago, I searched for them without success. I assume they’re in the attic in a box my kids will find one day.

But I do remember Bill’s writing style. His prose stood out as overly elaborate. A bit on the purple side. The man wrote with passion and panache, as if it felt good, and, in his heart, he saw himself as a virtuoso.

I should point out, however, that enjoying something and being good at it are not the same. I love music, but I can’t sing or play a single instrument. And then there’s the case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Sometimes, my own prose can adopt a fancier flourish and may lean toward the purple. But that’s on purpose, when I’m trying to be funny or dramatic. Most of the time, my output is relatively standard and straightforward. Journeyman level, I’d say.

In all honesty, I think I turned out to be a better writer than my grandfather.

No question, really.

None at all.

I need to find those carbon copies.

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The Confluence

It’s June 1994, and I’m on my first-ever raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. On the morning of the second day of the trip, we arrive at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. In contrast to the green water of the Colorado, the water of the Little C is a beautiful deep aquamarine, due to dissolved limestone and travertine.

The trip leaders take the passengers upstream along the north bank of the Little C to a point above a shallow set of rapids. Curiously, we are told to put on our life jackets upside down — to wear them like pants so the padding protects our butts. Just do it, the guides say.

We enter the river and form a chain, single file, 15 people long, each of us holding the legs of the person behind us. The guides steer the chain into the current, and we embark on an exhilarating 60-second ride back downstream to the confluence.

Over the next hour, we reform the chain and ride the Little C a dozen times, whooping and hollering like children. The experience is magical.

And I think to myself, this is the life.

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Headwaters

It’s a sunny Saturday in July in the Northeast Georgia mountains, sometime in the late 1980s. I am day-hiking the Jack’s Knob Trail, heading up the southern slope of Brasstown Bald.

Moments earlier, I reached Chattahoochee Gap, the junction with the Appalachian Trail. The Gap also is the source of several seeps and springs that constitute the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.

I fill my water bottle from one of the crystal-clear pools, drink deeply, spread out my lunch on a shaded boulder, and think to myself, this is the life.

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Me and the Shorebirds

It is August 2002, a few minutes after sunrise. I am at the tidal pool at the mouth of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City Beach, Florida. No one is there except me and the shorebirds.

I am 50 yards from shore, chest deep in the water, on my tiptoes, approaching the jetties. In my left hand is an older Nikon DSLR that I told myself was expendable, but which I am terrified of dropping. The camera survived.

The water is impossibly clear, impossibly aquamarine. Ten feet in front of me, pelicans line up along the jetty rocks. I shoot photos by the dozens, and I think to myself, this is the life.

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Along the Delaware Shore

It’s a sunny spring day in 2010, and I’m on a road trip to New England in my Toyota MR2 Spyder convertible, a recent retirement gift to myself. I’ve just stopped somewhere along the Delaware shore where a man has erected a canopy and is cooking shrimp in a large black kettle.

Having made my purchase and staked out a spot on a nearby dock, I watch as the seagulls play overhead and the shrimp boats go about their business on Delaware Bay. Beside me are a cold bottle of beer, a pint of freshly-steamed shrimp, and a cup of tartar sauce.

I take a sip of my beer, select a shrimp to peel, and think to myself, this is the life.

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