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Archive for the ‘Recollections Personal’ Category

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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Mementos

Over time, I have developed two noticeable habits: I have allowed assorted collections of things to accumulate and proliferate, and I have taken to placing esteemed items on display around my house.

Re the former, I have assembled a number of disparate collections, as detailed in the 25 Random Things post elsewhere on this blog. Re the latter, I display individual treasures on every available flat surface because the items please me and evoke nice memories.

Walk around my house, and you will see family photos, enlargements of scenic shots from my travels, works by folk artists, favorite pottery pieces and sculptures, and assorted knick-knacks that I enjoy having around.

The truth is, my house looks like an antique shop or a thrift store. Every table, wall and counter is adorned with… stuff. Lots of eclectic stuff.

I do this because I can. I’m divorced and living alone, so no one is here to dissuade me. It’s a bit quirky, I admit, but harmless.

However, one aspect of all this, I have come to realize, is a bit sad. Let me explain.

Most of my mementos are self-explanatory. Their value is unambiguous — more or less obvious at a glance.

For example, I bought this foot-tall figurine at an art show in the 1990s. It’s a replica of a pre-columbian statue, possibly Mayan.

The figurine is simply an interesting $50 reproduction, and I enjoy it as such. As would anyone.

Likewise, I bought this sculpture several years ago at an art gallery in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s a raven by Oregon artist Steve Eichenberger. His crows and ravens are handsome and wonderfully expressive. Look him up.

You get the point: the value of most of my treasures is in their beauty or uniqueness and usually is self-evident.

On the other hand, many items in my possession have significance for other reasons — reasons often known only to me.

Take, for example, this three-inch tall carving that you would conclude, correctly, to be an Eskimo. When my dad was stationed at Thule AFB in Greenland in the 1950s, he purchased it from an Inuit man who carved it from walrus tusk.

You would have no way of knowing that.

Nor would you know that these glasses belonged to my grandfather, Walter Anthony Smith, Sr.

Nor would you know that this railroad spike is a souvenir from my first dayhike — literally my first hike ever — in the summer of 1979.

Nor would you know that this cheeky ring holder was a gift from a friend during my Air Force years.

A fellow lieutenant brought it back from the Philippines and gave it to me as a joke. It has been on my bedroom dresser for half a century and counting.

Another memento with special meaning is this paring knife, which belonged to my Savannah grandmother, Stella Smith.

I watched her use it countless times when we visited Savannah, starting when I was a little kid and continuing until I was an adult. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her hands as she peeled potatoes and sliced carrots in the kitchen sink. She would slice, rinse the knife, and slice some more, often humming to herself.

Long after my grandmother died, my aunt continued using the knife. A few years ago, when the house was finally sold, I claimed the knife. I use it almost daily.

I’m fully aware that the subject of my special treasures is trivial. Everyone has had experiences similar to mine, and we all have equally treasured possessions.

But it’s an unfortunate fact that when we’re gone, all of those small, intimate memories are lost, as well.

Like tears in rain.

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My mother, Ann Horne Smith, was a great lady. She was whip-smart — probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever known. She was pretty, funny, vivacious, generous, and a person of great integrity.

And Mom gave her children a gift that is valuable beyond measure. Without fail, Mom judged others by their behavior and character, never — never, ever, ever — by their race, religion, or nationality. The example she set was profound.

This from a woman born in 1921 in rural south Georgia.

Mom cursed like a sailor, but racist and bigoted language was forbidden in our house. When we spoke about someone, she insisted we do it fairly and respectfully.

“Talk about people as if they were in the room,” she would say.

The same rules applied to the students in the Sunday School classes she taught. She scolded many a young girl for gossiping or being racially insensitive.

Mom addressed everyone in the same courteous manner — family, friends, neighbors, tradesmen, store clerks, strangers — regardless of their race or other factor. Mom believed that everyone is entitled to respect, unless and until they demonstrate it is undeserved.

I like to think I absorbed Mom’s lesson. I consider myself to be — I try to be — a fair and unbiased person. To the extent that’s true, I owe it to Mom’s example. I raised my own kids accordingly, and both boys, as well as their kids, show every sign that the lessons were learned.

How Mom turned out the way she did, considering when and where she was raised, I don’t know. My grandmother Leila is the likeliest influence, although she never seemed as outspoken and uncompromising about personal behavior as Mom was.

But maybe I’m not giving Leila enough credit. when Mom was just a few years old, my grandfather Bill Horne walked out, and Leila suddenly was on her own as a single mom. Still, she had the grit to open a beauty salon and operate it through the Great Depression.

Take it from me, folks, it’s crucial to talk to your elders. Have long conversations with them. Pick their brains.

You need to ask the important questions while people are still around to answer them.


Ann Smith (1921-2005)

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Overcompensation

over·com·pen·sa·tion | noun: excessive reaction to a feeling of inferiority, guilt, or inadequacy, leading to an exaggerated attempt to overcome the feeling.

———

Back in the 1970s, we lived in Fort Lauderdale, and I was trying to get established in the advertising and PR business. Those first jobs didn’t pay much.

Money was tight, a constant worry. The boys didn’t really lack for anything, but the situation weighed heavily on me and Deanna.

Things eventually worked out, but those were difficult times. I am reminded of them some mornings when I step into the closet to choose a t-shirt.

Yes, therein lies a tale.

It’s funny how the mind works. Back in our Fort Lauderdale days, as I struggled to pay the bills, I seized upon a small, inconsequential matter to be irritated about. Or, rather, to pout about.

It was the fact that, while everyone around me — friends, family, neighbors — owned cool and interesting t-shirts, literally every t-shirt I owned was plain, unadorned white. (Men’s t-shirts typically were white back then, in case you didn’t know.)

I didn’t own any t-shirts that bore logos, cartoons, or printing of any kind because I couldn’t afford them.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. More correctly, the money was better spent in other ways. I guilt-tripped myself out of owning t-shirts that were fun and appealing — and it bugged me greatly to be deprived in such a manner.

Time passed, and our money situation improved. Eventually, I rewarded myself with a few interesting t-shirts — a Georgia Bulldogs here, a Led Zeppelin there — but only a few. The money still was better spent in other ways.

That line of thinking ended when I found myself divorced. Suddenly, I was on my own and answerable to no one but Rocky Smith.

Accordingly, I began collecting t-shirts with gusto. I did it because, by God, I deserved those t-shirts. Not a very mature reaction, but immensely satisfying.

In the years that followed, I started taking regular vacations out west. I came home with t-shirts from Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Yellowstone, Death Valley, Moab, Durango.

When I went on whitewater rafting trips in Arizona and West Virginia, I got t-shirts from the outfitters — Class VI, Outdoors Unlimited, AZRA.

Later, when I bought an RV and began taking road trips, I picked up souvenir t-shirts from the Northwest, the Great Lakes, New England, the Gulf coast, and more.

And naturally, in addition to souvenir shirts, I bought others that caught my eye. These two beauties, for example.

T-shirt-1

T-shirt-2

Okay, so what’s the bottom line? How many non-plain t-shirts do I own today? About 40.

The number seems to have reached equilibrium and stabilized there. When a shirt wears out, it gets a second life in the rag box. Meanwhile, I’ve picked up a new shirt to replace it.

I freely admit that my affinity for the t-shirts is excessive. I am overcompensating for a perceived deprivation from long ago that, in fact, I inflicted upon myself.

On the other hand, I truly appreciate and enjoy my shirts. And, as obsessions go, this one is pretty benign.

On wash day, when the t-shirts come out of the dryer, I hang them up instead of folding them. That way, I can peruse them more easily in the closet.

The shirts take up about two feet of closet space. As part of my morning ritual, I go down the line and pick out a t-shirt to wear that day.

Am I in the mood for the Elvis mugshot t-shirt? The SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirt? The Roswell UFO Museum t-shirt?

Perhaps a shirt from Grand Canyon (I have several from which to choose). Or the Allman Brothers Summer Jam 1973. Or the NASA I Need My Space.

Aha! The Beavis and Butthead. Perfect!

Anyway, that’s the story of my t-shirt collection. I should add that it involves one great irony:

I always wear a button-up shirt on top, so nobody ever sees the t-shirt but me.

T-shirt-3

 

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