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More letters from Mom about life on the home front in the 1960s…

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Friday night May 17, 1966

Dear Rock,

It was good to hear your voice the other night. When I answered the phone I never dreamed it would be you. When it rang, I grumbled my way over to answer it, wondering why Danny did not do so. He usually gets to it first. Anyway, thank you for calling. I hope we did not run up your bill too much.

Oh, how about this fancy writing paper? One of my Sunday School kids gave me a box of it for Xmas.

At the present time, I’m knocking my head against a stone wall trying to talk them into a little tolerance. I’ve forbidden them to use the word nig— in the classroom. I finally got one of the little girls who said she doesn’t like colored people to admit that she actually doesn’t know any.

The conversation got started Sunday morning because five negro girls have registered to attend the high school next year, but none for Suwanee Elementary. Melanie Owens said she was glad, because she didn’t like them.

Lee Ann Early said the most sensible thing, which gave me some hope. She came out with, “I don’t know whether I like them or not. I don’t know any except Big John at the 1-Stop, and I like him.”

It gives me the creeps to see these kids being brainwashed by their parents. I know I have no right to fiddle with their beliefs, but as long as they are in my Sunday School class, I don’t have to listen to it, and I can at least try to get them thinking in a Christian way.

I know I’ve got about as much chance of changing their little minds as a snowball in Hades. We’ll probably find a cross burning in our front yard some night. Oh well.

We are all okay. Danny is 12 feet tall. His voice is changing, and he hates it. Betty is growing up fast. She reads and writes as well as any of us. Smitty gives too much of himself to that bank, but what can you do. Lee comes home from Athens every weekend. He looks good. I am still not smoking, and that is a miracle in itself.

Much love,

Mom

Mom with the girls in her Sunday School class in 1968. Mom was still teaching.

Mom with the girls in her Sunday School class in 1968. She was still teaching.

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Sept. 21, 1966

Dear Rocky,

I will not have time to finish this. It is 15 to one, and I have an appointment to interview the Brown sisters here in Suwanee. They are both up in their nineties, live in that old house on the left at the end of Sheltonville Rd.

Anyway, I am going to write a human interest story about them for the paper. Wish me luck. I don’t even know how to start an interview. I hear, tho, that all you have to say is hello, and they will talk a blue streak.

Well, I got the interview, and it went really well. Those are two of the neatest old ladies you ever saw, wonderful sense of humor, very friendly, memories like steel traps. One is 93, the other 96. I dread writing the story because they rambled on from thing to thing in no sequence. I’ll let you know how it turns out. I want to get Dan’s Polaroid to take a picture for the story.

Another chapter for my book: last Wed. I went out to go to Mama’s for lunch, and the car caught fire.

It had stalled, and rather than flood it, I waited three minutes. When I tried again — POP! she caught fire, flames licking out from under the hood.

While Lee threw sand on it, I ran for the telephone. I told the operator to get me the Suwanee Police. She connected me to Buford. The cop said Lady, I can’t send people all the way out there. I cussed him out, thinking it was the Suwanee PD.

Finally, he said to try Sugar Hill, which I did. They got here inside of ten minutes. Meanwhile, Lee and I had run our legs off getting sand and dirt to throw on the fire. The car was hot as a furnace. I expected it to explode any minute. The Sugar Hill police stayed until it stopped smoldering.

About that time, the Suwanee police car pulled up. Since I thought I had been talking to him earlier, and he was so snotty, I shook my fist at him and shouted “You needn’t come out now!” That made him mad, and he turned around and scratched off down the driveway.

When I found out my mistake, I called both the Buford and Suwanee stations and apologized. They towed the car to Osborne Chevrolet to get it steam cleaned to see the extent of the damage. I detest that car. Never have liked it nor trusted it.

Marie Everett is getting married. Donald is on his way to Vietnam. Daddy got a thousand dollar raise, but what it amounts to is another $60 per month. We will try to save some of it for income tax time.

Daddy is on one of his periodic diets. He started Monday and has done well so far. I don’t know how long he can lay off the peanuts, tho.

Guess I had better stop. It is time for the bus, and Betty and Dan will not let me write in peace.

I love you,

Mom

Sisters

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Mom’s letters, as I mentioned in the beginning, had been packed away for decades in a box in a closet. Why, after all that time, did I decide to drag them out? 

Because a few weeks ago, for reasons unknown, an old memory surfaced about the funeral of one of their neighbors. Maybe, I thought, Mom had the details in an old letter. She didn’t, I’m sorry to say. 

Let me explain something about funerals in the old days. Years ago, burial customs were different, especially in rural areas. Traditionally, the deceased was placed in a casket at home and a “wake“ was held. 

Family and friends came to pay their respects. They brought food. Some might stay with the family through the night. Burial took place the next day. 

The memory that surfaced was about a wake in which the casket was too big to fit through the doors of the house, so it had to be passed through a window. 

Twice. The first time empty, the second time occupied.

But I couldn’t remember the identity of the neighbor. I thought it might have been Rogers Brown, whose house was across the road from the Smiths, but I wasn’t sure. So I asked two people who were there, my brother Lee and my sister Betty. 

Lee said it was Rogers Brown, definitely. Betty said it was Grady Anglin, no question. 

Lee is a decade-plus older than Betty, so their memories of things are bound to differ. Probably, they’re both right. For all I know, caskets were passed through windows regularly. 

On a visit to Suwanee in April 1972, Mom and Dad help my son Dustin take his first steps.

On a visit to Suwanee in April 1972, Mom and Dad help my son Dustin take his first steps.

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More letters from Mom about life in the old days in Suwanee, Georgia…

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June 12, 1965

Dear Rock,

Everything here is wet. It has rained for so many days I lost count. I feel like a swamp creature. We have hopes of clearing skies tomorrow.

Bible school is going on this week. We have all learned to hate each other working together in the church with the rain drumming on the roof. The kids have had to have their Kool-aid and cookies on the table in the back of the sanctuary, and well, you can imagine the crumbs, spilled grape juice and ice melting on the pews.

Brother Charles sat at home on his duff Monday and Tuesday. Claimed he did not know it is the preacher’s job to be at Bible School. Mrs. Gasser and I jumped on him and set him straight. He was there today and says he will continue to come. As I say, we have learned to hate each other, but it will blow over.

Outside of Martha Pierce, who almost wiggled out of it, the only people I could get to teach were Gloria, Mrs. Tate, the two Dianes and Peggy Puckett. Mrs. Tate got sick, so I have Helen DeLay in there now.

Martha and Peggy teach the juniors, Danny’s class. Today they made bookends out of plaster of Paris. Martha said Danny is a riot and keeps them all laughing. I said smart aleck is more the word for Danny.

Smitty took Old Shakey to Robert and had the brakes adjusted and had it oiled and greased. You ought to see the old thing. Daddy just loves it. It is black and looks like it might growl at you.

The other day, he went to Duluth to pick up some stuff at the farmer’s supply, and on the way there, the foot feed stuck. He said he was going wide open and couldn’t slow down. To stop it, he had to turn the ignition key off.

He would start up again, and it would go full blast, which really isn’t that much, then off with the key again. He finally pulled over and somehow fixed it.

Mrs. Hutchison spent the afternoon with me yesterday. She said that when Joe Jr. was 16, his dad put him to work with the construction gang, digging ditches. It was in the summer, and he had never done any hard work before.

One day he climbed out of the ditch and told the foreman, “When I get to be president of this company, I’m gonna fire you.” The foreman said, “Well until you do, you get back down in that ditch and dig.”

Joe Jr. was furious. That night, he told his daddy about it and said the foreman ought to be fired. The next day, Mr. H. called the foreman into his office and raised his salary.

Lee is on a date, Smitty is reading the paper, Dan is painting the bookends he made today, and Betty is asleep. I must get to the ironing board, as it is already after nine. I love you very much.

Mom

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

Betty and a struggling cat pose with Old Shakey.

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July 21, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Your letter was most welcome yesterday and gave me more than my share of chuckles. I laughed heartily all by myself.

There has been quite a lot of tragedy around Suwanee this summer. Remember Winnie Burnett, James’s wife? They lived on the corner of Level Creek Road and Main on the left, where they always had a pretty garden. Two boys, 13 and 9.

She had a breast removed a year ago. Then some knots appeared on her neck several months back. They operated, but the cancer had gone too far. I never saw anybody deteriorate so fast. Saturday a week ago, she was taken to the hospital and died Sunday morning.

Doyle Moulder also died. He was Bonnie Moulder’s son, 28, asst. principal at Lawrenceville Elementary. He was at a lake near Madison with his family, had his little girl on his back in waist deep water, and he just suddenly went under.

The lifeguard saw the child floundering and brought her back to shore. Poor Doyle was stone dead at the bottom of the lake. They said he had no water in his lungs, so they think it was a heart attack.

Dan Brown took Rogers to the hospital in Buford in pretty bad shape. The doc said he needs an operation that involves going into his head, a four-hour thing. Dan thinks it’s just a sinus condition, but I heard that Rogers went berserk last week and was out of his head. Poor thing and poor Dan.

Rock, you know how we’re always discovering wonderful characters around these parts. I have discovered a simply marvelous one that is hard to beat. And the funny thing is, I’ve been hearing about him all my life.

His name is Forrest Turner, and he was a great pal of Leland Harvey. The two of them probably spent most of their adult lives in prison, and they were famous escape artists, especially Harvey, although Turner had a pretty good reputation, too. They never murdered anybody. Just pulled robberies.

Anyway, while in prison, Turner learned a trade. He learned to make false teeth. Now he is out for good, barring future misdeeds, and he makes false teeth.

He goes to the homes to do the work. For some reason, he always goes at night. He charges $55 for a set, uppers and lowers, whereas if you get them done at a dentist, it runs $250 or more.

It seems that most of the rural population of Gwinnett County goes around wearing teeth by Turner. Everyone says he makes beautiful, good quality teeth. Frank lost his teeth on his trip to Florida, so he is going to call Turner to come out.

Last year, Margie Tallant got wind of it and went to the judge in Lawrenceville and tried to get Turner stopped. But so far, he is still making teeth. He lives in Decatur. He must be an old man, because I remember hearing about him when I was a child. He was always escaping and would stay on the outside, the object of a manhunt.

I’ll bet many a poor devil is going around with teeth who otherwise would be gumming it, if not for this guy. When you think about it, he has no middle man and probably makes a good living at it. For example, say the materials cost him $10 and he charges $55. Not bad.

Well, I need to go to bed. This new typewriter ribbon makes more mistakes than the old one did. Daddy’s vacation starts Monday for two weeks. He can hardly wait. We are not going anywhere. Will vacation at home.

I love you,

Mom

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad's beard.

Mom and Aunt Betty check the progress of Dad’s beard.

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More letters from home in my next post.

 

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More letters from Mom reporting on family life back home…

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Mon. night Oct. 26, 1964

Dear Rocky,

We have been having such beautiful weather for the past couple of weeks that I almost hate to mention it. Last Saturday, Smitty, Lee, Betty and I walked down to the river.

The trees all along the river bank were just gorgeous. Honestly, we didn’t see any prettier color when we drove up to the North Ga. mountains. Just more of it up there.

Agnes’ puppies are fat little butterballs. All they do is eat, sleep, squirm and holler. She takes good care of them. She is thin, but looks good. Her appetite is huge.

It was very hard on her since it was her first litter, and six big ones was quite a task. She had the pups in the storage room, and I could not get near them or her for two days. I wanted to get them all to the basement, but she was determined that I would not touch a thing.

Finally, she decided to come in the house. We had fixed up a nice bed in the basement with a clean, soft blanket. Dan took the puppies around to the basement door, and then we let Agnes down there with them. She was all upset for a while but is fine now.

We finally got the hogs butchered. They are now resting peacefully in packages in the freezer. We thought we had lockers reserved at Gann’s, but not so. Daddy had to scout around for a used freezer on the very day the meat was due to be picked up.

He found one at Goodwill Industries for $70 and had to rent a trailer to get it home. We used Danny’s roller skates under one end to maneuver it into the basement. You should have seen us.

Guess there is no more news. Mama and Frank are fine. Write when you can.

I love you,

Mom

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

In those days, the Suwanee Smiths lived on eight acres of pine trees and pastures.

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Thursday night, Feb. 4, 1965

Dear Rocky,

Before I forget, be sure to watch the next Jonathan Winters Show because his guests will be Bob and Ray. It’s bound to be hysterical.

Here is the news from Suwanee and outlying areas. Earl English’s wife had an accident and tore her new car asunder. She was in the hospital for a few days but is home and on the mend.

Faye Roberts’ husband has a new company car, a Chevy with all the trimmings. He gave Faye a mink stole which she hesitates to wear to church for fear people will make derogatory remarks either within her hearing or otherwise.

Ann Smith has a new permanent. She also just finished making a tan jumper and a tan and white checked blouse. She drinks too much coffee and smokes too many cigarettes. She still weighs only 100 pounds.

Donald is going into the Marines right after he graduates. If he graduates. I know Clifford will be relieved for the Marines to get hold of that boy.

The Hutchisons are going to Europe for three weeks. Margaret is going to have a baby in June. Fred Tallant had to oust a bunch of drunks from the apartments last Sunday. Margie Tallant’s mother is now a housemother at the U of Ga. Cute-Face is pregnant again.

Camel breezed into Mama’s kitchen last Sunday morning when the temperature was about 9 degrees, wearing shorts and sandals. Mama said he did it just for the pure hell of hearing her fuss at him. Anyway, she said he was three sheets to the wind and probably didn’t feel anything.

The Titshaws moved over near Lawrenceville and rented their house out to some logger. He parks his truck full of pulp wood half on the front lawn and half in the road. When you drive by, you get the feeling it is in the process of backing into you.

During the last siege of snow and ice, the preacher drove into a ditch and hit a tree. Dented his pretty black car, but nobody hurt. Hardy DeLay swapped his Valiant for a Dodge pickup. Anita Payne was in a beauty contest at her school recently, but I don’t know how she came out.

The Manns, who moved into the house where the McElwreaths used to live, have a daughter who rides the bus with Danny. She asked Danny if there is a whiskey still in the woods on the Browns’ property. She said Mr. Brown is always going into the woods at night with a flashlight, and one morning they woke up and everything smelled like wine. How about that?

Well, tonight is school night, and it is about time for Daddy to get home. I have to get his supper going. Take care. Write when you can.

Much, much love,

Mom

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora's sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny's shoe.

Relaxing at the Smith place. Left to right: Nuisance the Beagle, Mom, Betty, Lightning the Dalmatian, Lee, his girlfriend Sherry, and Danny. Danny is holding Dora, a Beagle pup. Dora’s sister Doris is peeking out from behind Danny’s shoe.

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More Chronicles in my next post.

 

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A few weeks ago, I hauled out of the closet a box of old cards and letters that hadn’t seen the light of day in 50 years. Literally.

I received the correspondence from various family members and friends in the 1960s, when I was in college and the Air Force. Fully half the letters in the box are from my mother, bless her.

Back then, people didn’t communicate the way we do today. Cell phones, email, instant messaging, social media — they didn’t exist.

The land-line telephone system reached more or less everywhere, but it was unreliable. Long distance voice quality was never good. It was sort of like the dial-up internet of its day.

For most people, letter-writing was a much bigger thing than it is today. And we Smiths were prolific letter-writers.

Soon after I went away to college, the family moved to Suwanee, Georgia, population 400, where my grandparents Leila and Frank Byrd lived. Suwanee was Frank’s hometown.

As it turned out, the town was a lively and interesting place with a cast of characters worthy of Faulkner. Suwanee had plenty of upstanding citizens. It also had scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

Virtually everyone in town went to church. But for years, the proprietor of one of the downtown stores sold moonshine from the back door of his establishment. Clearly, the demand was there.

Half of the town’s phone lines were party lines. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossip was the sport of choice.

What made Suwanee different from any other community in the land? Nothing whatsoever.

Mom was a natural writer who clearly enjoyed sitting down at the typewriter, and her letters are delightful to read. They’re funny, entertaining, and certainly revealing of her character.

Which, of course, is the point of presenting them. I’m deeply biased on this subject, but I assure you, Ann Smith was a person well worth knowing.

In the letters presented below, she refers to local people you don’t know. For the most part, it doesn’t matter.

But there is one exception. The “Camel” she mentions is Campbell “Camel” Hamilton, Frank’s cousin and next-door neighbor. Camel was a jovial, middle-aged country fellow, a bachelor living comfortably with no visible means of support. He was one of the more colorful characters in town.

Here are two of Mom’s letters. Welcome to Suwanee.

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Aug. 25, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Lee just crept off to football practice. He had entertained the thought briefly that he might skip practice this morning, but the coach announced that anyone who didn’t show up would run laps equivalent to 10 miles.

Lee thought the coach would mellow out after he got married. He didn’t.

I wish Lee wouldn’t play football. He isn’t big enough. He eats like a horse but still only weighs about 140.

I ought to have my head examined. I have never learned to say “no.” The chairman of the Retarded Children’s Drive called and buttered me up, saying what a wonderful job I did last year, taking charge of the drive in Suwanee, and would I do it again this year. I was so blinded by flattery I agreed instantly and have hated myself ever since.

The drive is less than a week away, I have to go to an executive PTA meeting tonight, help with choir practice on Friday, have to get Betty a shot before Thurs., have peas to shell and freeze, the house is dirty, my ironing is piled up to the ceiling, my hair needs attention, I’m behind about two years on mending and sewing, all the closets need cleaning. I could go on and on. What a rat race, and I take on something else.

Cute-Face had five kittens this week. They look just like the other batch except two of them are black as the ace of spades. I’ve threatened many times to cause Cute-Face to disappear, but it won’t happen. Danny keeps tabs on her too closely.

Joe at the Post Office is still imbibing. Last count was that he has been inebriated going on three weeks. I noticed we were getting more of other people’s mail than usual. Poor Joe. Wish I could help him.

Frank is off from work for a week, orders from the doctor. He was having trouble with his leg. Mama seems fine. Liz Hutchison is coming to play with Betty this afternoon.

Last week at church, I didn’t stay for the service after Sunday School, and the preacher sent word by Danny that I was missed. Subtle, eh?

So that is the state of affairs here. Already I can feel the Fall of the year creeping in. Either that, or it is old age.

I love you, sweetie,

Mom

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

The Suwanee Smiths, left to right: Betty, Dad, Mom, Danny, and Lee. The pets are Susan Cute-Face, Blacksmith, and Agnes.

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Oct. 1, 1964

Dear Rocky,

Tonight is Daddy’s school night. He goes on Tues. and Thurs. and gets home around 8:15. Betty and Danny are watching “The Munsters” on TV. Lee is doing homework. Agnes is asleep in my chair. She thinks I don’t know she is up there.

Big news in Suwanee. They moved into the new Post Office today, and you will be amazed at what a nice-looking thing it is. Joe and Frank are as proud as new papas. Frank is going to be working there permanently. At least that is what I gather.

Rock, those two black kittens are just darling. They have the longest white whiskers and are little devils! The kids named them Peggy and Tiger. Tiger, after Tiger Hutchison, who ran away and never returned. He jumped out of the car at the 1-Stop one day and took off like a striped ape.

Actually, I was not surprised. The treatment he got from Liz was rough. He probably was just waiting for his chance.

Buck Buice came rambling by late yesterday afternoon. Hardy DeLay was walking the cattle back over here, and Buck saw him and came over. Buck was about three sheets to the wind. I couldn’t help but get tickled.

Every time I see Buck, I think about the time he came to take Lord Ashley to the slaughterhouse, and he was backing up his truck so fast, with you hanging onto the back end. You said it was like being strapped to the front of a speeding locomotive.

Camel took Mama down to Statesboro on Sunday. When he got back the next day, he was pretty well snockered on his home brew. He complained that he “couldn’t get that sorry-ass Ford past 90.” Pardon my French.

The place is real pretty now with a lot of Fall color. We have a blazing fire every night. We always have good frozen veggies from the garden, plus a nice beef roast or some pork chops, thanks to critters like Lord Ashley who sacrificed their all. Do you see how terrible I’ve become?

Rock, we enjoy your letters so much. Keep them coming.

I love you.

Mom

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

Mom at the lake, summer 1964.

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More of the Suwanee Chronicles in my next post.

 

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In the eyes of family and friends, I am that fellow who is obsessed with going hiking. The one who, for years, has spent most of his weekends and vacations on a trail somewhere, either locally or on the other side of the country. The guy who has been to Grand Canyon 23 times, for Pete’s sake.

To them, I am an eccentric — slightly unbalanced, but in a harmless way. The family reputation is in no real jeopardy.

That’s how they think of me. What they probably don’t think about is how I came to be the fanatic that I am — how the obsession started.

I know exactly how and when it started.

In the summer of 1979, frustrated by boss problems at work, I quit my job in Fort Lauderdale. We sold the house, packed up the family, and moved back to Georgia. I was 36, married with two kids.

For two months, the four of us lived in my parents’ basement in the little town of Suwanee, population 400, located 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. As happens in a decent economy, things quickly fell into place. I found a job, and we bought a house, and life settled into a routine again.

One Saturday morning during that two months in the basement, I woke up with an urge I didn’t experience often: the desire to go for a solitary walk in the woods. The woods, in that place and time, went for miles in every direction.

The morning was sunny and pleasant, and job-hunting wasn’t done on Saturdays, so I announced to the household my intentions to disappear for a while and go for a stroll. I would follow one of the old dirt roads that meandered through the piney woods, just to see where it went.

No one seemed to care one way or the other. I got comments like, “Well, that’s nice” and “You have fun” and “Be careful” and stuff like that.

Fortunately, nobody wanted to go with me. That meant I could get away alone and have time to think my own thoughts.

The towns in that part of Georgia — Norcross, Duluth, Suwanee, Buford — grew up along the Seaboard Coast Line railroad, which runs through Atlanta and northeast into South Carolina and points beyond.

(Each town had a small railway station, but the trains rarely stopped. They did, however, deliver the U.S. Mail. That was accomplished when the stationmaster put out “the hook” each day to snag the mail pouch as the train zoomed through. I know this because my grandfather was the Suwanee Postmaster. As a kid, I never tired of watching that ritual.)

The main road in those parts was, and still is, Buford Highway, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks. The few other roads in the area were small county roads, some paved and some dirt, dotted with occasional houses like Mom and Dad’s.

For the most part, it was blips of civilization surrounded by undeveloped woods. Between Mom and Dad’s house, on the edge of Suwanee, and Duluth, five miles south, there was little but oak and pine forest and a few small creeks.

That changed in a hurry. Starting in the 1980s, land developers descended on Gwinnett County. All that territory was turned into housing subdivisions, industrial parks, and shopping centers. Here is a Google Earth map of the area today:

Suwanee to Duluth

The red dot at the top shows where Mom and Dad lived on the outskirts of Suwanee, on a bluff near the Chattahoochee River (the green line). The north edge of Duluth is at lower left. The black line is the railroad, and the single yellow line on the right side is Buford Highway.

In 1979, nothing was between the river and the railroad tracks except forest. No divided four-lane highway, no subdivisions, no nothing.

Where I intended to go that morning, I didn’t know. I took a bottle of water, a package of cheese crackers, my shades, and a bandana. I wore a baseball cap and ordinary tennis shoes. Back then, I didn’t own hiking boots.

For a time, I walked south, following an abandoned dirt road that was cut off from civilization and probably hadn’t seen a vehicle since the horse and buggy days.

The area was former farmland. I passed the ruins of a few old homesteads that had collapsed into piles of rotted boards. In most cases, the pine trees, undergrowth, and kudzu had grown up and swallowed them, covering everything except the chimneys.

Sometimes, the road disappeared, and I had to make my way across a field. But progress was easy. I kept going in the same southerly direction with no destination in mind.

I encountered a lot of wildlife that morning. Deer, rabbits, and quail were everywhere. They weren’t accustomed to seeing people in so remote a spot.

The deer and rabbits were startled to see me, but the quail always gave ME a scare. They have a way of waiting until you’re within three feet of their hiding place, then taking flight in a mad frenzy.

Eventually, the old road intersected the right-of-way of a row of mammoth electrical power lines and disappeared for good. I continued south, following the power lines.

Then I reached the edge of a large swamp formed by Brushy Creek, which flows west into the Chattahoochee River. I faced an impassable bog from horizon to horizon.

Well, not completely impassable. Crossing the swamp near the transmission lines was a pipeline — carrying water, natural gas, or whatever — elevated on six-foot pilings.

The pipe was huge, about three or four feet in diameter, painted an unpleasant shade of milky turquoise green. The pipe emerged from the ground, crossed the swamp on the pilings, and went back underground again.

I hopped onto the pipe, walked across the swamp, and resumed my journey.

A short time later, I spotted the railroad tracks in the distance and abandoned the power lines. I began walking south along the tracks. For the first time, I had a goal: going all the way to Duluth.

At that point, I figured I was about halfway there. I had progressed a couple of miles in a couple of hours. Shortly before noon, I sat down on a crosstie and ate the cheese crackers for lunch.

I also picked up and placed in my back pocket a memento of the hike: a rusty railroad spike that I found discarded next to the tracks.

Walking along the tracks was easy. I crossed Suwanee Creek, a fairly large stream, via railroad trestle. I crossed a second creek by trestle, and then I was back in civilization again — houses and traffic at the edge of Duluth.

Almost immediately, I attracted the attention of some local dogs. It was time to turn around and go home.

Late that afternoon, having retraced my steps and arrived back at Mom and Dad’s house at last, I walked into a hornet’s nest.

My lovely wife was furious.

How could you just disappear like that and leave us wondering whether you were alive or dead?

Do you realize we were on the verge of calling the police? Nobody knew what happened to you! Do you understand how worried we all were, how inconsiderate it was to do that to us?

My dad was indignant.

Son, your mother was worried sick. You were gone way too long. She thought you might be hurt or something. I’m really disappointed. You should know better.

Mom didn’t say much, which meant she was angry, too.

That was, quite literally, my first formal hike. And, yes, I did learn a valuable lesson vis-à-vis loved ones waiting back home.

However, except for the unpleasantness that ensued in the aftermath, I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I decided I would do it more often.

Since then, I have hit the trail hundreds of times. How many hundreds, I don’t know, because for years, I kept no record of my hikes. At some point, I began to document them — by date, location, distance hiked, and the dog, if any, who accompanied me.

These days, I don’t go hiking as often as before, and I don’t hike as far as I once did. But Paco and I are still at it. I still have a blast, still love the whole experience.

It’s true, I’m a fanatic. Obsessed, even.

Eccentric, but in a harmless way.

Spike

 

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If you’re familiar with this blog, you probably know that I’ve been trying to cope with the loss of my aunt, Betty Smith, who died in April.

Betty was a charming, gracious, truly delightful person. She never married, so her life revolved around the greater Smith clan, which is a growing and widely scattered bunch, and her friends and co-workers in Savannah.

Betty was the heart and soul of our family. The axis we revolved around. The force that held us together. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

The last time I saw her was in February, when I went to Savannah for a periodic visit. At the time, her health and spirits were fine.

Betty always insisted that I bring Paco to Savannah with me. She understood that Paco is a prince among dogs, and she was very fond of him. In the evenings, as we sat in the den and chatted, Paco would sit next to Betty to receive a leisurely petting and ear-scratching.

My February trip was typical in every way. I was in Savannah for four days. Twice, we went to the Smith family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery to pay our respects to the departed. We spent one evening visiting Cilie Sutton, Betty’s best pal for an astounding 86 years. We strolled around the downtown squares and along the riverfront. We ate seafood twice a day.

The morning Paco and I were loading up to drive home, I took these two photos:

Betty & Paco-1

Betty & Paco-2

The two shots work so well together that when I got home, I made prints and placed them in a double frame. I keep them in a prominent spot where I see them often.

At the time, I didn’t know they would be my last photos of her. They mean a great deal to me.

If you’ll notice, Betty is holding a camera in the photos. As I later learned, she took a photo of me as I drove away, which was unusual. This is the photo.

Rocky departing

That shot may not look like much, but it’s meaningful if you know about the “departure ritual” we Smiths followed for many years when it was time to leave Savannah.

How the ritual began, no one remembers, but we all followed it religiously. It involved driving past Betty’s house and giving her a final wave.

Betty’s house is on Kinzie Avenue, a double street with a median. The lane in front of her house is one way eastbound. The lane on the other side of the median is one way westbound.

The median is there because for many years, a street car line ran down Kinzie Avenue. Both sides of the street are extra wide, so cars can park at the curbs and still allow for passing traffic.

The departure ritual involved driving away in the required easterly direction, making a U-turn at the end of the block, returning west past Betty’s house on the other side of Kinzie Avenue, and waving goodbye.

Betty and any remaining house guests would be standing on the front porch, waving back.

The finale of the ritual was when you reached the next stop sign, a block away, and gave your horn a tap.

About a month after Betty’s funeral, I found the photos she took during my February visit. The processing envelope from the camera store identified the date. The above photo of my departure was among them.

(Betty stubbornly stayed with her film camera. We couldn’t convince her to go digital.)

So, from that morning in February, I have the final photo I took of Aunt Betty, the final photo she took of me a few moments later, and a reminder of our longtime departure ritual.

Considering all the siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins who visited Aunt Betty over the years, that ritual played out hundreds of times.

How sad that we won’t be doing it anymore.

 

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I live in the little town of Jefferson, north of Atlanta, well up onto the Piedmont Plateau. Up here, we are spared the worst of the heat, humidity, gnats, and mosquitoes you find down on the coastal plain. The North Georgia seasons are downright moderate.

But this is the South, and I live in the foothills, not the mountains, and summer is still summer. Which is why, when I find myself retreating indoors by noon and turning on the air conditioning, it’s time for a restorative road trip.

One of those times was the last week in June. Daytime temps were creeping into the 90s, so I packed a bag, loaded up the dog, and set out to spend a few days at some higher, cooler elevation.

My plan was to drive into North Carolina, head up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and take side trips as the spirit moved me. It would be a qué será, será sort of thing.

For the record, I was traveling in my trusty RV, “Old Blue” — so named because the interior is upholstered in velour of a jarring cerulean blue. It was a 90s thing.

So, this would be a camping trip. But camping, I assure you, of a civilized nature.

The kind of camping where you stay at an RV park, plug into AC power, fish a cold beer out of the refrigerator, and crank up the hot water heater for your shower.

The kind of camping where, after sitting outside and watching a beautiful sunset in the invigorating mountain air, you retire to the RV to listen to some tunes, or maybe watch television, while the dog snoozes at your side.

To me, the appeal of RV camping is the adventure of it all. When you stop for the night, you’re in new surroundings, meeting new people, having new experiences. It’s invigorating.

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the experience will be positive. You never know how the conditions, the surroundings, or the people will turn out. It’s always a roll of the dice.

—————–

It was late afternoon of my first day on the road. Paco and I had traveled 150 miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it was time to find a campground for the night. I exited the Parkway in the small mountain town of Spruce Pine.

Signs advertising RV campgrounds were everywhere, so I picked one at random. It seemed on arrival to be a good choice. The sites were nicely shaded, and the mountain views were impressive.

I stopped in front of the office, and a smiling man emerged. “Howdy, friend!” he said. “Welcome to [name redacted] RV Park! I like your rig!”

I thanked him, and we chatted agreeably for a minute before getting down to business. Yes, he had vacancies with hookups.

“I’ll put you down there next to my friends Joan and Bob,” he said, pointing down the row of sites. “They’re regulars, here all summer. Real nice, friendly folks.”

I nodded, mumbled more pleasantries, and paid him for one night. The man set off toward the campsite, and I followed in the RV.

As I backed into the site, my new neighbors Joan and Bob waved at me from a carpeted screen house behind their RV. I turned off the engine and got out.

“Hello, neighbor! Welcome!” said Joan in a loud and gratingly high-pitched voice. “I’m Joan, and this is my husband Bob!”

Joan was a seriously obese woman of about 60 with a jolly face and a bright yellow pixie haircut. She sat slumped in a large deck chair like a miniature version of Jabba the Hutt.

Instead of Carrie Fisher in chains, she held a tiny brown mongrel-looking dog that was yowling and straining to get at me. In a friendly way.

“This precious little fella is our baby, Dusty!” said Joan. “He is six months old and a rescue pup. We love him SO much!”

I introduced myself and expressed admiration for young Dusty.

Bob, a tall, lean man with a shaved head, thick moustache, and a face pocked with acne scars, chimed in. “We fell in love with Dusty because of his teeth — those silly snaggle teeth!”

Indeed, Dusty had a severe bulldog-like overbite. The splayed teeth looked terribly uncomfortable. Not that Dusty would know that.

“Well, come on in and have a seat!” Joan screeched. “We’ve got plenty of room and lots to talk about!”

I protested that they would have to excuse me for a minute, because I had a dog, too, and I needed to get him out of the RV.

Joan and Bob were thrilled to hear that I had a dog. They peppered me with excited questions, which I tried to answer as I inched backward toward my van.

Finally, I reached the sanctity of the far side of the RV. I got Paco out, hooked him up on his rope, and set out his food and water.

When my new neighbors saw Paco, they went bonkers. Joan and Bob, as apparently was their nature, were delirious with joy. Little Dusty began wailing in terror, probably convinced that 45-pound Paco was coming to kill him.

Paco ignored them all and calmly ate his supper.

Dusty’s wailing continued unabated, and the campground manager soon appeared. He joined Joan and Bob in trying to get Dusty to calm down.

“Dusty! Dusty! Take it easy, buddy!” said the manager. “The nice dog won’t hurt you! See? He’s a friendly dog!” He patted Paco on the head.

Dusty whimpered from the safety of Joan’s armpit. Ten feet away, outside the screen room, Paco stood next to me, benignly wagging his tail.

Slowly, Dusty got a grip, and the noise level subsided.

“Dusty is my god-dog, you know,” said the manager. “If anything happens to Joan and Bob, Dusty will come live with me!”

“Not that anything’s gonna happen!” Joan bellowed. “I outlived two husbands before I met Bob! I’m here for the long haul!”

“Ever since we got married,” she said with glee, “Bob has been a real light sleeper, if you know what I mean!”

Bob chuckled like a good husband, scooped up Dusty, and cooed soothingly in the dogs’ ear.

The manager drifted away to other duties, and Bob ushered me to a seat inside the screen room. Paco and Dusty ended up sprawled next to each other on the carpet.

For the next half hour, we sat and chatted in a neighborly fashion. Joan did most of the talking.

I learned that they are from Ocala, Florida, and they stay at [name redacted] RV Park every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

I also learned that Joan’s second husband left her a boatload of money, and Bob worked at a hardware store before he met Joan.

I probably should explain that I am not, by nature, a gregarious person. I have a limited tolerance for socializing. I get restless. It wasn’t easy to listen politely as Joan and Bob waxed eloquent about subjects of little interest to me.

Some people would have excused themselves on a pretext and retreated to the privacy of their RV. But I’m a polite, conflict-averse guy, so I sat there, enduring it.

Ultimately, it was Bob who broke up the confab.

“Joanie, honey, it’s almost six,” he said. “Why don’t we invite Rocky to go to supper with us?”

“Thanks,” I said quickly, “but I’m not going out tonight. I have some leftovers in the fridge. If you folks need to get going, please — don’t let me hold you up.” I stood up expectantly.

“Aw, come with us!” said Joan. “This town has lots of good restaurants! It’ll be fun!”

Somehow, I managed to beg off, and we said our goodbyes. With great effort, Joan struggled out of her chair. While Bob put Dusty in the camper and locked up, Joan plodded in laborious slow motion toward their car, teetering on a cane.

After they were gone, I put Paco in the RV and drove into town to find a quiet supper.

I know, I’m a terrible person.

Ten minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant that advertised the best home cookin’ in North Carolina. When I walked through the front door — oh, the irony — a familiar voice greeted me.

“So, you changed your mind!” said Joan in her familiar shriek. “How did you find us?”

“I, uh, spotted your car as I was driving by.”

The meal turned out to be pretty good. To my surprise, Joan ate like a bird, Bob like a ravenous beast. Joan talked continuously and effortlessly.

By the time we got back to the RV park, they were ready for bed. Joan said they were early-risers.

The next morning, I was up early, too. I ate breakfast, fed Paco, got showered and dressed, packed up, and was on the road by 6 AM.

Lest they think me rude, I left a goodbye note on their windshield.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That's Joan and Bob's campsite on the far side of my van.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That’s Joan and Bob’s campsite on the far side of my van.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.

J&B-3

 

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