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Posts Tagged ‘Friends’

Miss Amy

Back in the 1980s, when Deanna and I were spending a lot of weekends exploring North Georgia, we met a Rabun County lady named Amy Carpenter. Everyone called her Miss Amy.

She was a widow who lived alone in a small house in the little town of Tiger, near Clayton. Miss Amy made quilts for a living.

Quilting was, and is, common in the mountains. We had asked the owners of our favorite inn to recommend someone who did good work. They sent us to Miss Amy’s house.

The woman who answered the door was in her late 60s or early 70s. She looked and acted the part of a women born and raised in them thar hills.

I was immediately fond of her. She reminded me of my grandmother Leila and countless other country ladies I’ve known — stoic, polite, soft-spoken, unflappable.

Miss Amy ushered us into her living room, which was completely taken up by a quilt in progress, stretched out on a giant quilting frame. We squeezed through a narrow space on one side and went into the kitchen.

The breakfast table in the kitchen was Miss Amy’s office. The extra bedroom was a combination display room and storage room. Piled up in various stages of disarray were her finished quilts and her supplies — bolts of colorful material and rolls of batting.

When it came to quilters and quilting, Miss Amy was the real deal. Her work was magnificent. And she didn’t own a sewing machine; every stitch in every quilt was a hand stitch.

There was a time when ladies like Miss Amy made and sold quilts for a pittance. But, like their counterparts out west who make Navajo rugs and Papago baskets, they learned that their handiwork is worth serious money. A well-made, full-size quilt will fetch many hundreds of dollars, often into the thousands.

Like most quilters in the area, Miss Amy specialized in art quilts, made for their aesthetic and artistic qualities, not their functionality.

But she also made utility quilts, using bed-sized pieces of material and batting instead of little squares. The utility quilts are secured with a stitch every foot or so. I’ve heard them called tack quilts.

At the same time she was working on the high-quality quilts, Miss Amy also pumped out tack quilts in a steady stream and sold them for $50.00 to $75.00. They were her bread and butter, and that was what we went to Miss Amy to buy.

Over the years, we bought quite a few from her, some for our own use and some for gifts.

Miss Amy also had another sideline specialty: she made custom baby blankets. After Deanna and I got divorced, I continued to go see Miss Amy regularly when I needed a gift for someone’s new baby.

I would call Miss Amy, place the order, and drive up the following weekend to pick it up.

Our visits were never lengthy or chatty. That wasn’t her way. But I always looked forward to them.

The last time I called her, sometime in the late 1990s, Miss Amy informed me that she had retired. She was selling her house and moving in with her daughter and grandchildren, who lived a few houses away.

She thanked me for being a good customer over the years and gave me the name of another quilter lady.

I never bothered to follow up. It wasn’t the quilts that kept me going back. It was Miss Amy.

Over those years, I probably knocked on her door 15 or 20 times. Two of those visits stand out from the others.

One, of course, was that first day when we met her. The other was several years later, when she had known me for a while and was more willing to open up.

That day, I had asked her something harmless, like was she a native Georgian, and the conversation turned to her late husband. As it happened, he had died a few months before we first came to see her.

She spoke about him with such feeling, and I was so moved, that as soon as I left and got in my car, I wrote down what she said:

— He never laid a hand on me.

— I never paid a bill in my life.

— I never got out of bed, what that he didn’t have a hot cup of coffee waitin‘.

High praise from a great lady.

One of Miss Amy's tack quilts.

One of Miss Amy's tack quilts.

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The ancient Chinese were said to have a series of three curses of increasing severity with which to zing you: May you live in interesting times, May you come to the attention of those in authority, and May you find what you are looking for.

During my college years, the early 1960s, I didn’t find what I was looking for, and I came to the attention of the authorities only rarely, but it certainly qualified as interesting times.

While I was a student there, the University of Georgia was forced to enroll its first black students. That was a trip. Moreover, the Vietcong, The Beatles, and the space program all emerged at that time.

We almost got into a nuclear war over missiles in Cuba. JFK was elected and then assassinated. The Civil Rights Bill was enacted. The US began a massive military buildup in South Vietnam.

As for the rest of the decade, it just got worse.

Life was intense throughout the world, and that fact was obvious at the University of Georgia, even to a naive young snot like me: starting in 1960, a veritable flood of students from Southeast Asia enrolled at UGA.

Why they chose to attend college in Athens, Georgia, I don’t know. But they came by the hundreds from Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.

Most were reserved and private, but not all. I got to know enough of them to understand why they left home to attend college in the United States: to escape the war that was spreading back home.

These students were the sons and daughters of the prosperous and the powerful. Their families packed them off the U.S. to save them from being conscripted, kidnapped, shot, or converted.

According to the rumor, when they were in danger of graduating, they switched majors.

I was acquainted with a handful of the foreign students, but I wasn’t especially close to them. My friend Al, on the other hand, was.

Somehow, Al hooked up with a group of Thai students interested in Western literature. They were intrigued by it, picked Al’s brain about it, and in turn introduced him to the literature of their own country.

Although Al was a good guy, he was an unlikely literary expert. But he did his best. He enjoyed it and was flattered.

One day between classes, I was sitting outside of Memorial Hall, the Student Union, near the bronze bulldog statue.

The statue is technically well done, but the poor dog is seriously ugly. The sculptor was good with bodies, bad with faces.

Seeing it reminds me of a recent remark by my friend Larry: I know for a fact that your birth doctor spanked your face when you were born.

Maybe the ugly factor is why the bulldog has suffered numerous indignities through the years. At regular intervals, certain of his appendages are painted. That day, he wore a purple jockstrap on his head.

Anyway, Al caught up with me there, and he was atremble with glee.

“Rocky, one of the Thai guys insulted me this morning,” he said, “He didn’t realize it, but he did.”

One of his Thai friends, he explained, came up to him, put an arm around his shoulder, and said, “Al, I like you. You are a simple man.”

Al beamed. “I know what he was trying to say. It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.”

I quietly put an arm around his shoulder, too. Al was a sentimental guy. After a few beers, The Whiffenpoof Song always brought a tear to his eye.

The statue of the ugly bulldog at Memorial Hall.

The statue of the ugly bulldog at Memorial Hall.

South end of a northbound bulldog.

South end of a northbound bulldog.

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In late 1951, the Air Force transferred my dad from Yokota Air Base in Tokyo to the Pentagon in Washington. For a while, Mom and Dad corresponded with a young Japanese man, Arimichi Nakase, who had worked for us in Tokyo. For more about Arimichi, read my post “Arimichi Spills the Beans” under the “Recollections, Personal” category.

Among my treasured possessions is the following letter from Arimichi.

—————

April 15. 1952
126 Zaimokuza. Kamakura City
Kanagawa Pref. Japan

Dear Colonel and Mrs. W. A. Smith.

I am much delighted with your very nice letter and a pretty picture. I enjoyed very much so that I put it in my pocket all day long, not only to stay at home, but also to go out from house.

Some people may have thought that he is an insane person or he is just like a child, if some people have looked my action.

Well, I have takusan to write to you. I was so anxious for Lee-san who had suffered from sickness when you were going to go back to the State. But now I am very glad to see their picture because Rocky-san and Lee-san are merry to play cowboy and are looked so well. My aunt said as soon as she saw the picture, “What a sweet boys they are” and they have grown up so much.

I always remember you and your boys. If I were a bird I could fly over your beautiful brick house at once.

You wrote that your town is just a few miles out from Washington, D.C. I think that your town is just like Kamakura, where is a few miles out from Tokyo.

There are many temple in Kamakura. The silent place give us the peaceful mind and the practical mind.

The cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom at Uno Park, where you know. I believe that the Japanese people who love the flower shall be keeping the gentleness and beautiful mind in the future.

Do you know the article nine of the constitution of Japan? It is saying that aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognize of.

Prime Minister Yoshida clearly said in the Congress “We should keep our new constitutional law, so we Japanese shall never keep the army again.”

But I don’t think so. The fundamental human right is going to destroy because of this. They are forgetting the history of Japan, honour, respect and confidence.

It is we young men and persons who have self-consciousness that will decide the fate of the future Japan. If Japanese people have not sincerity, Japan shall after all be banished from the struggle for existence in the world. How do you think about it?

I should write to you what I am doing. I had given up my house boy job on the 10th of Feb. Do you know why? Because I could not go to school only three days in a week. I thought that study is more important than working. I might be fail in the examination of the third year class.

I have spring vacation now so I am getting recreation. Sometimes I went on a hike and to play fishing and to get the crab at the beech.

I heard that Suzie has gotten the nice job of the telephon girl in the international hall, which is the biggest building. I hardly see Suzie recently, but she give me the letter sometimes. Though she is a small girl, she become plump.

I and Suzie wish that Colonel Smith has the rotation to Japan again because we shall be able to see you every day.

I envy that my school friend has gone to study abroad to the United State, so I am waiting for opportunity too.

Well I have not a good picture now, so I will send it next time but I put a cherry flower in this envelope.

I have a great favour to ask of you. Would you please introduce to me a student? I want to correspondent each other because I shall be able to know American school life, education, thought and everything.

Also I shall be able to tell him about our school life, classical literature, culture, manners, custom and etc.  I want many American people have understand the Japanese.

Next time I will write you takusan sentence so please write me another letter again.

My aunt sends her very best regards to you all, and I send Rocky-san and Lee-san lots of love.

Your faithful house boy,

Arimichi Nakase

—————

Suzie and Arimichi would be in their 70s today. I’ve often wondered what kind of lives they lived, and whether they kept the letters they got from Mom and Dad.

I wish I could thank them for being our friends. I wish I could tell them, “Domo arigato gozaimasu.”

 

Rocky-san and Lee-san are merry to play cowboy.

Rocky-san and Lee-san are merry to play cowboy.

 

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It was vintage Larry Flowers: a clever prank on the perfect foil. This one had all the earmarks of legend.

In 1997, I was a copywriter in the Marketing Communications Department at Lithonia Lighting in Conyers, Georgia. Larry, my boss, was a proud and accomplished trickster.

Larry wasn’t merely skilled at perpetrating practical jokes; he was a bona fide genius. An artist.

Which is why, when a co-worker ran into my office and breathlessly announced that a prank was about to go down, I sprang from my chair and followed a parade of other people outside to watch.

It was a few minutes before 5:00 p.m., almost quitting time. On the way out to the parking lot, I learned what was about to happen. The prank, as the best often are, was simple.

Larry’s boss, the late Dick Morse, drove a beat-up, high-mileage Honda Civic. Dick was a well-paid vice president, but it was no secret that he came to the company with financial problems. His constant penniless condition, and the series of decrepit vehicles he owned, hinted at the extent of his troubles.

Dick was a past president of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company and as you would expect, given to theatrics. In his role as our boss, he developed a sort of faux gruff demeanor, but it was exceedingly faux. In truth, Dick was good-natured, good-hearted, and undemanding. We knew it, and he knew we knew it.

Which helps explain why he was an ideal foil for Larry’s machinations.

Sometime after lunch that day, Larry had gone out to the parking lot and, using two small axle jacks under the front wheels of Dick’s car, raised the front tires one barely-noticeable inch off the pavement.

The Honda, Larry reported later, sat rock-steady on the jacks, and it looked perfectly normal to any casual observer, including Dick.

By the time Dick emerged from the building at 5:00 p.m., half of the people in Marketing Communications were stationed in and around the cars, waiting for him.

On the surface, it appeared to be the usual afternoon exodus. We were anonymous among the hundreds of company employees leaving for the day.

But our attention was quietly focused on Dick. Some sat in their vehicles, feigning activity. Others stood in small groups, feigning conversation. I watched from the vantage point of my car 20 yards away.

Dick walked out to his parking space carrying his briefcase and a purloined box of K-Dry paper towels. He unlocked the Honda, placed the items on the back seat, and got behind the wheel.

He rolled down the window, poured some stale coffee on the ground, lit a cigarette.

He started the engine, put the vehicle in reverse, and turned to look over his right shoulder, preparing to back out.

The engine roared. The tires spun in mid-air with a mighty whine, but the Honda went nowhere.

Dick eased off the gas, and the engine subsided to an idle.

He turned off the engine, restarted it, and tried again to back out. Same result.

I watched his head bob as he looked left and right, up and down. He leaned out the window and peered at the tire.

Leaving the engine running, he got out of the vehicle and paced back and forth, looking at the grill and hood. Dick knew less about automobiles than the average 10-year-old.

As we relished the scene, trying to keep our snickering inaudible, Dick raised the hood of the Honda and looked for… he knew not what.

As he stood figuratively scratching his head, Larry got out of his car a few spaces away. “Hey, Dick!” he shouted. “What’s up?”

I couldn’t hear Dick’s reply, but I watched gleefully as he explained his plight to Larry, gesturing at the car, shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head.

Then Larry put an arm on Dick’s shoulder and pulled him closer. For a few seconds, Larry talked and Dick listened.

When Dick finally grasped that it was a joke, the moment was unmistakable. He looked skyward, then dropped his head to his chest, then shook it slowly from side to side.

The rest of us emerged from concealment and gathered around the two of them, laughing and chattering. Dick laughed as heartily as anyone.

Soon, the jacks were removed. Dick drove away, and we dispersed. For the umpteenth time, I mentally tipped my hat to the prankmeister himself, Larry Flowers.

For years, that was how I fondly remembered the episode. But as usual, there was more to the story.

Recently, I emailed Larry and asked him to refresh my memory about the car-jacking incident, so I could write this post. His reply was wholly unexpected:

Rocky, I tell you the following with mixed emotions. I set out to have some fun and play a trick on Dick. But once it was done, I felt pretty bad.

Dick came to Lithonia Lighting in poor financial shape. He was just divorced, and the IRS was all over him. His pay was being garnished. He had no money.

Dick knew little about mechanical things. One time, he poured a gallon of windshield washer fluid into the oil filler of his Cabriolet, blowing the head gasket.

When I walked over to his Honda that day, he had a worried look on his face, and it hit me. The man had just borrowed money from the bank so he could have wheels to get to work. That car was  his lifeline to Conyers and what little money he was able to keep. I made him think it was ruined. I felt pretty lousy.

When I explained that it was a joke, I expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. Not at all. He was just relieved that his car was okay.

He just said, “Larry, get it off the jacks so I can go home.” It made me feel really terrible, and I’ve regretted it every since.

Dick left Lithonia Lighting in 1998. He died in 2002. He said many times that we would miss him when he was gone, and he was right.

As Larry put it:

Dick was a lovable scoundrel, a master of getting by with stuff that still amazes me. But he was a true advertising man. A good writer, a man of impeccable taste.

Wherever Dick is right now, I know he’s got something going on, and he’s surrounded by his precious books and cats. Rest in peace, Dick.

Amen to that.

Richard V. "Dick" Morse

Richard V. "Dick" Morse

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The Sleeping Tiger

I want to go on record about my friend Tim.

I’ve known Tim for a long time. We met when we worked for the same corporate villains a few years back.

Not to go all maudlin on you, but Tim is an admirable fellow. His personal integrity and sense of ethics are strong and sincerely felt.

I can’t recall ever seeing him get angry. Or lose his cool. Or behave too badly. As those who know him readily acknowledge, Tim is a great guy.

However, praise-fest aside, I must tell you that Tim is no saint. The truth is, he has a character flaw that is quite surprising and… somewhat alarming.

That flaw: his abiding love of, and avid devotion to, the art of the practical joke.

In this arena, I have seen him swiftly and gladly set aside integrity, ethics, and decency to orchestrate and execute the perfect gotcha.

Tim is quite skilled at this avocation. Devious, treacherous, and cunning also come to mind.

Still, as long as you know of this obsession, and you are careful to let the sleeping tiger lie, you should have nothing to fear.

Probably not, anyway.

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