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Posts Tagged ‘The South’

New Territory

Nothing clears away the mental cobwebs like a road trip. Especially a road trip to new territory.

Which is why, earlier this month, having a block of time when no obligations kept me home, I set out in my RV to see the Texas coast.

Somehow, at my advanced age, I’d never been there. I made no reservations. Had no plans to visit Austin or San Antonio. I was more interested in seeing the countryside and the small towns.

February, I admit, is a terrible time to go to the beach. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip out of simple curiosity, and I was stoked.

My plan was to drive down to Port Arthur, head south along the Bolivar Peninsula, cross to Galveston Island, and the rest would take care of itself. As is my custom, I would camp in state parks along the way.

Before the trip, I had a feeling I knew what I would find down there. And, pretty much, I was right. My observations:

First, much of coastal Texas is, no surprise, tourist-oriented. It being February, the attractions and shops were a bit sleepy, but no doubt they’ll be ready for the onslaught of vacationers when the season arrives.

Second, large parts of the beachfront are private and residential. I passed long stretches of homes, second homes, time-shares, summer rentals, hotels, motels, and resorts that go on for miles, unbroken except for occasional empty lots for sale.

Now and then, if you look carefully, a sign will identify a small public access point to the beach. You know — the beach you sometimes glimpse, over there beyond the private property.

Third, the terrain is flat and featureless, covered by a modest layer of low-growing vegetation. Bays and inlets are rare. So are sand dunes. No wonder hurricanes surge many miles inland instead of glancing off the coast.

Fourth, I was unsurprised to find that so much of the coast is heavily industrialized. You regularly encounter not only oil wells, refineries, and petroleum processing facilities, but also giant chemical plants and manufacturing operations.

I passed numerous industrial plants the size of shopping malls, with thousands of cars in the parking lots, a sprawling sea of gleaming, steaming pipes, and generic names that reveal nothing about the nature of the business.

Names like Texas Heavy Industries. MHI International. Direct Energy. Varco. Schlumberger — all quite mysterious to a passing tourist. The one thing they seem to have in common: belching smokestacks.

In sum, coastal Texas is what I expected. I was neither pleased nor disappointed. It is what it is.

My curiosity satisfied, I enjoyed a leisurely drive south to just short of Corpus Christi.

Along the way, I sampled the local cuisine as often as possible.

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Delicious char-broiled oysters.

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A superb shrimp po-boy.

And I had experiences not available back home in North Georgia. I shot this video on the ferry to Galveston Island.

To get from Georgia to Texas, I followed the Interstate highways, always a stressful and unpleasant experience. Once I arrived, I switched to ordinary federal and state roads. They were, almost without exception, well-maintained and lightly-traveled.

In fact, I was so impressed with the non-Interstate routes that I followed them, exclusively, on the return trip to Georgia.

Specifically, from South Texas, I drove north on U.S. 77 to Waco, then followed U.S. 79 to Shreveport. There, I picked up U.S. 80, which parallels I-20, and followed it across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and into Georgia. In Macon, I turned north on U.S. 129 back to Jefferson.

Those four routes are divided four-lane highways with minimal traffic. In Texas, the speed limit is 75. In the other states, it most often is 65.

Rarely did the roads bypass the towns. Which was fine with me.

The trip home was an easy and pleasant ride, and I remember it primarily for two reasons.

The first reason: the afternoon I spent at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, located midway between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. The Center is a museum, part of the Park Service’s “Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.” It chronicles events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

If you recollect your history, blacks were demonstrating in Alabama in the early 1960s to protest the use of literacy tests to block them from registering to vote. At the time, the voter rolls in Selma were 99 percent white. That was not unusual around the South in those days.

In March 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, police attacked and beat a group of marchers. The episode quickly prompted a massive organized march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, led by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.

When Gov. George Wallace refused to offer protection to the marchers, President Lyndon Johnson nationalized 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard and assigned them to escort the demonstrators.

The direct result of all that was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

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The film and exhibits at the museum are excellent. Moving and effective. Much more powerful than I expected. They reminded me of a time when the courts and our political leaders — most of them, anyway — were on the right side of important moral issues.

I miss those days, when I was optimistic about the future. When the government made me proud. It pains me that our progress toward fairness and social justice has slowed since those times.

Progress has slowed because, for decades, the terrified conservative masses — you know, the ones clinging to their guns or religion — have been steadily descending into paranoia, inflamed by the right-wing media, enabled by Republican politicians, and now, for crying out loud, abetted by Putin. No wonder we have a vulgar, incompetent clown as President.

But, hey — I digress.

The second memorable moment of my return trip to Georgia happened earlier that same morning in Selma. When I stopped for a red light near the center of town, I looked to my left and saw a man dancing.

Why the man was dancing, or to what music he danced (note the earbuds), I have no idea. I don’t know if it was a spontaneous, one-time thing or if he did this often.

Was he celebrating? Was he high? Are mental issues involved?

Whatever the answers, I was compelled to capture the moment on video.

From my standpoint, the music on my radio (Blue Monday, New Order, 1983) was a nice complement to the performance.

Road trips are, indeed, the perfect way to clear the mental cobwebs. Especially road trips to new territory.

 

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In Remembrance

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

———

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

PFM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had Tony painted them? Did his skills transcend woodworking?

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

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

This is what Tony told me about his mother Marge.

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

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

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

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

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

This was not a lady fading into her dotage.

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

He furnished more. She demanded more again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowman

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

 

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In 1956, Truman Capote wrote a famous recollection about Christmas in the 1930s in rural Alabama. It tells of Capote’s close relationship at age seven with an elderly spinster cousin, his best friend and confidante. The story is warm, sentimental, and clearly heartfelt.

Capote grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where, you may recall, his neighbor and childhood friend was Harper Lee. The spinster cousin, unnamed in the story, was Miss Nanny Rumbley Faulk, who was called Sook.

Central to “A Christmas Memory” is Sook’s magnificent home-made fruitcakes, which consisted of 21 ingredients and took half a day to prepare. Each fruitcake weighed almost 10 pounds. In case you’re feeling ambitious, here’s the recipe.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, peace, and good tidings.

———

A Christmas Memory

By Truman Capote
Originally published in Mademoiselle Magazine, December 1956.

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together — well, as long as I can remember.

Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unravelled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs.

But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.”

The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings.

Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”).

To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show.

My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, travelled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry.

Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies.

Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13.

“I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river.

We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs.

As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by.

People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted.

I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking.”

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year.

Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken).

Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating — with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle.

Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwed-up expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously.

I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips.

Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-in-law? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”

“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”

“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy.

Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south.

Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on.

Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Give ya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.”

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime.

So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose).

My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly.

I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “I could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could — and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite.

She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”).

Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite — the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge.

Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you.

“Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy” — she hesitates, as though embarrassed — “I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh.

The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences.

Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors.

One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine — from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.

Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”

“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind.

Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond.

“I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.

But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are” — her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone — “just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones…”)

For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.”

But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! “

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.

That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Capote-1

Capote-2

The photo taken of Truman and Sook by Mr. Wiston from California when his car broke down.

 

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Here, let me give you one of my cards. Now, if you should ever want to reach me, call me at this number. Don’t call me at that one. That’s the old one.”

— James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in the movie “Harvey,” 1950.

———

I cast my first ballot in 1961, the year I turned 18. Technically, my 18-year-old self could vote only in state and local elections; at the time, the minimum federal voting age was 21. As you know from your high school civics, the 26th Amendment, enacted in 1971, lowered the voting age nationwide to 18.

But it’s a fact that from 1961 to the present, I have faithfully cast a ballot whenever the law has allowed me to cast it, without missing a single election, ever. An unbroken string of 50-plus years. I’m right proud of that.

Also notable in this regard is that I have never once — never once — voted for a Republican.

Just to be clear, I’ve voted in a boatload of elections over the years — primaries, runoffs, special elections, general elections, local, state, national — and I’ve never cast a ballot for anyone running as a Republican.

Judging from the way the GOP continues to spiral downward into lunacy, delusion, and paranoia, I never will. But let’s not talk about the Republicans and their beliefs, which range from the laughable to the selfish to the mean. It befouls my mood.

This record of never having voted for a Republican wasn’t planned. It occurred naturally, owing to the fact that I’ve been a liberal Democrat as long as I can remember. That’s just how I roll. When I realized I had a no-GOP thing going, I found it quite satisfying and resolved to keep the record intact.

A couple of decades ago, the political landscape was different from today. In the old days, the Republican Party was, as always, fixated on greasing the skids for business interests and rich people. It was right-leaning, but far less wild-eyed and extreme than today’s GOP.

Democrats back then were a mix of non-whites, white liberals like me, and, awkwardly, Southern white conservatives. The latter belonged to the Democratic Party by long tradition.

Under those circumstances, I had no trouble choosing candidates. I simply ignored the Republicans, and I ruled out any Democrat who admired George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, or anyone of that ilk. Voting was a piece of cake.

But then, in the late 1960s, the Republican Party enacted its despicable “Southern strategy.” This was when the GOP brazenly tacked to the right in order to curry favor among white Southerners who resented societal changes, such as the civil rights movement, and despised the hippies.

The Southern strategy was cynical and dirty, and it worked brilliantly. The GOP siphoned off virtually every white conservative voter in the South. Within a decade, the Democratic Party was devoid of Southern white conservatives.

By and large, nothing really changed in Southern politics, government, or governance. The same people who ran things as Democrats now ran things as Republicans. Their worldview and behavior changed very little.

And, as far as my voting habits and practices were concerned, none of this mattered much. For a while.

The transition of the South didn’t take long. The GOP steadily took over virtually all local and state politics, like mold on cheese. And once that was done, in order to keep Democrats out and Republicans in, the gerrymandering commenced.

Gerrymandered

Georgia’s gerrymandered congressional districts.

Examples are everywhere, but here are two from my own back yard.

— Atlanta, a stronghold of the Democratic Party, was gerrymandered into four separate congressional districts. Atlanta’s voting strength was diluted, and three of the four districts immediately elected Republican congressmen.

— Athens has been a liberal bastion for years, but gerrymandering split Athens between the 9th and 10th Congressional Districts. Both were large enough to neuter the city’s political influence, and today, those districts, too, are represented by Republicans.

For me, who never misses an election and doesn’t vote for Republicans, this presented a problem: what to do when everyone on the ballot is a Republican?

I don’t remember exactly when I faced this dilemma for the first time. Probably sometime in the 1980s. Probably in a local election in which all the candidates on the ballot were Republicans.

Voting for one of them was unacceptable. So was skipping the election. So was turning in an empty ballot. The obvious recourse: a write-in candidate.

The first few times, making a good-faith effort, I wrote in the names of local people I could imagine doing the job. But, really, what difference did the name make? It was a single write-in vote, destined to mean nothing.

So I came up with a new system. Each time I encountered an all-Republican ballot, I wrote in the name Elwood P. Dowd. Over the years, I’ve voted for Elwood countless times.

Just last week, I early-voted in the Jefferson mayoral election. The race is between the incumbent and a challenger, both cookie-cutter, small-town Georgia Republicans. No Democrat was on the ballot. Therefore, I voted for Elwood P. Dowd.

By so doing, I was able to extend my unbroken voting streak of 50-plus years and also preserve my record of never having voted for a Republican.

That’s assuming Elwood P. Dowd was a Democrat, you understand.

Georgia voter

Dowd

 

 

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Another Claim to Fame

A few years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about Jefferson, Georgia, where I’ve lived for the last dozen years. They were stories about the history of the city, the county, and a few local people of varying degrees of celebrity.

Well, since I wrote all that, Jefferson has scored another claim to fame. Added another superlative to its history. Stuck another feather in its cap.

We are now the home of the world’s largest mattress.

Laugh if you must, but one Jefferson business took the matter seriously enough to actually construct the thing.

Here’s the story.

The world’s largest mattress is 38 feet wide and 80 feet long, which is about 3,000 square feet. That’s the size of 72 king-size mattresses. Or 96 queen-size, or 110 regular-size, or 156 twin-size.

The WLM was designed and built by a mattress company from Tennessee. It weighs 4,560 pounds. It consists of a frame, a boatload of foam padding, a giant mattress pad, and an equally huge cloth cover. The structure is supported by 46 roof trusses.

The WLM is located in the middle of the two-acre sales floor of Cotton Mill Interiors, a furniture and accessories store that occupies most of a former cotton mill near the center of town.

That enterprise, Jefferson Mills, is remembered fondly by the locals.

The mill opened in 1899 and for decades was the town’s largest employer and taxpayer. It was noted for its production of high-quality corduroy. The mill closed in 1995, and the structure was renovated for retail use.

The world’s largest mattress, you’ll be pleased to know, is open to the bouncing public. The owners invite kids and parents to take off their shoes, climb aboard, and go for a romp. A safety railing protects against falls.

As often happens, the PR people laid it on a little thick at the ribbon-cutting: “The reason for building the mattress is to promote the importance of sleep to an overall healthy lifestyle.” Uh, okay.

Still, as promotional schemes go, the WLM is benign and inoffensive. And it’s a lot classier than an inflatable gorilla in front of the building. Or the Chamber of Commerce throwing turkeys off the roof at Thanksgiving.

So far, I have not availed myself of a round of bouncing. But, hey — never say never.

WLM

 

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Help is On the Way

A few days ago, I stopped at the local Kroger for a few things, among them a bottle of Pinot Noir.

At the self-checkout, in order to get the pesky proof-of-age step out of the way (as if a graybeard like me isn’t over 21), I scanned the bottle of wine first.

I.D. check required!” barked the scanner in a female voice. “Help is on the way!”

Moments later, a young clerk in Kroger blue appeared, probably a high school senior or college freshman. I recognized him from previous visits. A pleasant kid.

I held out my driver’s license. He leaned forward, squinted, read my date of birth, and turned to inform the computer.

That’s a new recording,” I said. “The ‘help-is-on-the-way’ part. I don’t know why it strikes me as funny, but it does.”

Oh, thanks for reminding me,” he said. “I forgot to put on my name tag when I clocked in.”

He reached into a pants pocket and began fishing around.

With an aha, he located the tag, took it out, clipped it to his shirt, and turned so I could see it.

I made this after I heard the recording, like, a million times,” he said.

The badge:

Help

 

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I’m trying to puzzle out the story of my paternal great-great-grandfather based on a smattering of tantalizing facts. He seems to have led an eventful life in interesting times, and I’d like to know more about him.

The ancestor of whom I speak is John Hubbard Sherrod, M.D. He was born in 1830 in Emanuel County, Georgia, midway between Macon and Savannah.

His connection to the present-day Smiths: Dr. Sherrod’s daughter Martha married a Smith from the next county. Their son was my Savannah grandfather.

This is what I’ve learned about Dr. Sherrod so far…

Family notes say he probably was born in Norristown, Georgia, the son of Mrs. Elizabeth Sherrod, who was born in 1792, maiden name unknown. Nothing so far about his father or any siblings.

In 1851, at age 21, Dr. Sherrod married Elizabeth Moxley of nearby Jefferson County. By the time the Civil War started, John and Elizabeth had three daughters, Martha, Elizabeth, and Susan, born in 1854, 1857, and 1861, respectively.

When and where Sherrod earned a medical degree, I don’t know. Nor do I have information about earlier Sherrods and Moxleys. Considering his profession, I assume the families were fairly prosperous, but were they merchants? Farmers? Owners of vast cotton plantations? All unknown.

When the Civil War began, Sherrod served as a first lieutenant and Adjutant (second in command) of Company C, 38th Georgia Infantry, CSA. According to military records, the unit completed its training in April 1862, at which time Lt. Sherrod tendered his resignation. Whether he joined another unit or simply went home, I haven’t discovered yet.

I do know that he survived the war, and in 1867, he was appointed judge of Emanuel County civil court. He and Elizabeth also had two more children, John and Margaret, born in 1869 and 1871.

During the Reconstruction years, the history of the Sherrod family becomes fuzzier. Elizabeth died of unknown causes, and Dr. Sherrod remarried.

His second wife was Sudie Dunn, also from Emanuel County. The Dunns seem to have been as numerous thereabouts as Sherrods and Smiths.

John and Sudie Sherrod had at least three children: Charlie, Joe, and Jessie. Charlie was born in 1886, when Dr. Sherrod was 56.

Dr. Sherrod continued to practice medicine in Emanuel County, and/or made a living in some other way, for two more decades. Finding out how long he served as a judge is on my to-do list.

John Sherrod died in 1903 at age 73. After some Googling, I located his grave at a small Methodist church cemetery a few miles south of the Emanuel County line in Treutlen County. Last month, I drove down to pay my respects.

Neither wife, I discovered, is buried with him. I haven’t located the graves of either Elizabeth or Sudie, nor have I uncovered more information about them.

However, buried next to Dr. Sherrod are his daughter Elizabeth (by his first wife), his son Charlie (by his second wife), and various other Sherrods and Dunns whose connections are unknown. The head of the family surrounded by his flock, as it were.

Dr. Sherrod’s gravestone is six feet tall and fairly elaborate and imposing, as you might expect for a small-town prominent citizen. A separate granite marker with details about his CSA military service sits in front of the headstone.

I was surprised to find a small Confederate flag, a new one, flying next to his grave. It could have been placed by local Confederate history buffs, or it could have been placed by his descendants in the area. Odds are, quite a few of Dr. Sherrod’s relatives, and my own, live in those parts.

The best parts of Dr. Sherrod’s story, I suspect, are still out there — the War, his life afterward, his medical practice, his family. Maybe I’ll get lucky and ferret out more pieces of the puzzle.

Plenty of mysteries, clues, and threads of evidence are there, waiting to consume my spare time.

Sherrod-1

The grave of John Hubbard Sherrod (left) is surrounded by those of assorted Sherrods and other relatives at Midway UMC Cemetery in northern Treutlen County.

Sherrod-2

Dr. Sherrod’s monument prominently features the Masonic letter G with square and compass. The marble CSA marker at the base was placed sometime after his burial. The crisp, new Confederate flag was unexpected.

Sherrod-3

Martha Roseanna Sherrod Smith (1854-1939), my great-grandmother, was the oldest child of John Hubbard Sherrod. In 1875, she married John Wesley Smith (1845-1918), also a Confederate veteran. Their son was my paternal grandfather, Walter Anthony Smith (1881-1950). To the family, Martha was “Granny Smith.”

 

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