RETURN OF THE RED TAILS

I heard a shrill whistle from above and looked up into a late January sky. It was a beautiful January day, warmer than normal although the day felt cooler with a gusty breeze blowing from the northwest. The sky was cloudless and of a deep blue color poems are written about. Circling in the middle of the blue expanse was my red-tailed hawk.

I know she’s not mine any more that I’m hers but it’s the way I think of her…if she is a “her.” I believe she is a her because of her size. She and I met several years ago when I got too near her nest and was dive bombed by either “herself”or her mate. A bright reddish-brown flash had me ducking low to the ground while uttering several expletives as I scurried to safety. For several days, I searched with binoculars until I found her nest high in an oak tree on the high hill behind my house and made a note to stay clear until her clutch had flown.

For the past several January winters, the red tails have returned to make repairs to their nest before beginning their courting flights as the days lengthen in the early spring. Soaring high into the blue sky while twisting and turning, the male makes steep dives around his mate before soaring back into the “romantic” blue sky. Soon they will retreat to their evergreen boudoir in an ancient hemlock tree and their “acte d’amour” will begin for another season as the “circle of life” continues with an egg or three.

I once wasted several cool, early summer mornings watching the red tail teaching her one offspring how to hunt field mice. Standing at the kitchen sink, a wide picture window affords me a view of a small open area between my backyard and one of the streams cutting my property. Sitting on a dead “stick up”, the red tail and her charge would wait patiently for movement, then, after erupting into a violent dive, return to their perch with the bounty of their exertions and share…until that faithful day when they returned and momma hawk brushed the little one aside as if to say “This is mine, it’s time for you to go get your own.” There comes a time when we all must spread our wings and go off to do our own hunting.

My red tails are one of the harbingers of spring I check off as I await my “most wonderful time” of the year. Soon everything will be green and colorful with rebirth. Despite my allergies, mosquitos and the emergence of yellow jackets, it is the “most wonderful time” of the year.

As I knelt in my backyard, digging at some dormant plant needing to be moved, I paused to watch her catching thermals, soaring higher and higher. I realized we had survived one more season. It is a season of rebirth for us all. My grandmother lived for spring. In her nineties, I expected every winter to be her last but every spring she would rally, be re-born like the jonquils, to enjoy her “most wonderful time” of the year. In the February of her ninety-eighth year, winter won out as it will for us all. Until then I will await the return of my red tails, her memory, and my own rally and rebirth. My “most wonderful time.”

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time go to his author’s page at http://goo.gl/lomuQf. While there you might like to hit like.

A SPRING DAY IN JANUARY

Glorious is the only way to describe it. Days ago, I was wishing, nay, pleading for just a bit of sun to burn away the depression I experience in the winter. My Lord granted my wish. Two beautiful days with bright sunshine and temperatures in the high sixties or low seventies. Great days for yardwork, digging in the ground and playing in the garden while basking my body in the sun, an extra walk in the afternoon as the shadows begin to lengthen. Sitting in my backyard Adirondack, I am happy I have accomplished something outside. With my brown liquor and cigar in hand, I watch the sun disappear behind the mountains to my west. Glorious it is…was. Sunlight in the backyard and no mosquitos.

The coming days won’t be as warm but at least the sun will be shining, a true blessing…the sun. Later I’ll worry about whether the temperature has gotten cold enough to kill any of the mosquitos or whether we are getting enough rainfall to refill the local lakes and our water table. Honestly…it never gets cold enough to kill the mosquitos here in the foothills of the South Carolina Blue Ridge. For the next few days it’s all about soaking up enough sunlight to get me through the rest of our winter with my sanity intact.

I don’t know what people do in northern climes where it is “for real” cold and the sun is even lower in the sky…at least I don’t know how people with clinical depression survive, even if it seems to be in remission. Should I say, if they can see the sun for the copious amounts of snow fall? I religiously watched the television series “Northern Exposure” in the early or mid-Nineties. The series took place in the mythical city of Cicely, Alaska, a village I would love to live in or near if it was below the Mason-Dixon line. Do they have moose below the Mason-Dixon line? I vividly remember an episode titled “Spring Break.” The inhabitants of Cicely go through temporary and humorous madness as they await spring and the river ice to break. When the sun rose high enough in the sky…does it EVER rise high enough in Alaska? When the sun and the temperature rose high enough to cause the ice to break and flow in the river, the male inhabitants participated in what was called “the running of the bulls,” a run, sans clothing, past a gantlet of applauding women lining the Cicely equivalent of main street. If it will get spring here any sooner, I’ll run naked down Highway 11 and give you time to draw a crowd.

Fortunately for the residents of Tigerville, SC, I know spring won’t be here for another six weeks or so…regardless of what a ground hog located in Pennsylvania and my premature blooming Scot’s Broom say. Running naked won’t get it here any sooner. Until spring hits for real and the sun causes the ice to break, I will be satisfied with a day of spring here and there. I give thanks for these past two spring days…especially as I watch the weather news and its forecast of an impending cold snap. “Breaking ice” can’t get here soon enough. I wonder if my wife will applaud if I run naked around my back yard?

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time go to his author’s page at http://goo.gl/lomuQf. While there you might like to hit like.

A SLIP OR A SLIDE

When does the slip become a slide? A slide an uncontrolled skid? Or when does a skid become a full-fledged plunge over a cliff, my arms and legs flailing against air, hoping against hope to gain purchase, pinwheeling into the abyss. Everyone laughs when the comedic actor slips on a banana peel. I don’t. It reminds me of my metaphorical banana peel, depression. I don’t even laugh when Wile E. Coyote goes over the edge. I know he will survive the sudden stop at the end of his fall. I sometimes wonder if I want to survive mine…just go ahead, take that step. Falls have never killed anyone…but what about the crash at the end?

My depression hasn’t hit full force in decades. It doesn’t have to. My mini-depressions have hit like Wile E.’s anvil, just not in full force. Depression is a constant companion, offering me a taste, a bit of the poison, waiting for its chance to kick me over the edge. Every time my “blues” hit, I wonder, is this it? Is this going to be the one that lasts for a lifetime instead of two or three days? All I need is the memory, or is the remembrance a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does remembering make it more probable? Do all the questions with no answers depress me even more?

I napped heavily yesterday, a harbinger of depression? Was it the gloomy weather, lousy football games or my depression returning to sap not only my strength but my will to stay awake? Early the next morning I awoke in the darkness made heavier by the continued gloom and argued with two of the dozen or so voices normally residing in my head.

The feminine voice, one as smooth as aged whiskey implores, “Stay, pull the covers over your head. You have nothing to do…just stay, stay here with me.”

The other, a deep voice on steroids orders, “You lazy sumbitch, get your ass up, you’re burning daylight!”

They argued on and on until the drill sergeant’s voice wins and kicks me out of bed. Will there be a time when I ignore his deep baritone and succumb to the siren’s call of smooth whiskey, pulling the covers over my head and giving up? Is this the slip that starts it all?

Normally my exercise unscrambles and silences the voices. This morning the voices become shadows, flying behind my eyes in shapes and patterns resembling those found in a broken kaleidoscope. The colors and forms are there but I can make no sense of them. Is this the slide? The skid sending me over the edge?

Tomorrow is a new day. I pray for sunlight…bright and glorious sunlight to burn away the depression…if it will. In the winter of the year, my depression’s whisper become deafening, the slide more out of control. The nights are too long and the sun is still low in the sky. I pray for the sun and short nights. I dream of long days and a sun high in the sky even if it brings the heat, humidity and mosquitos of summer.

Until then I will have to try and battle my voices, wrap up against the cold when I go for a run, hoping the voices are silenced or at least softened and my slide ends up against a wall instead of over the edge and the abyss below.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

TRANSITION OF POWER

This is the day that power is transferred from one President to another, something which has taken place since George Washington turned the keys to the office over to John Adams in 1797. Interestingly, inaugurations were held on March 4 during those days rather than January 20…well maybe not that interestingly. I pray that despite all the indications to the contrary, this too will be a peaceful transition of power.

The first election and inauguration I remember was in 1956 and I remember it well because of my grandmother’s interest and concern. My grandmother was a Republican and seemed to be quite worried that a mid-western Democrat might somehow steal the election from the incumbent Republican. With 2017 twenty-twenty hindsight, I wonder why she was a republican, living in the South in 1956. At the time, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a member of the party of Lincoln in the South, or on this day sixty-one years ago, the party of Eisenhower. With 2017 hindsight, I doubt Lincoln, Eisenhower or my grandmother would even recognize the Republican Party of today.

She had great regard for Dwight Eisenhower, a well-deserved regard I would guess. Most of the people had high regard for Eisenhower because he defeated Adlai Stevenson quite handily…twice, after having defeating the Nazis, once, during old WW II. The anomaly of course was a South that normally voted Democrat during those days and this year it did again. The only break in rank was Texas and Louisiana. South Carolina’s eight electoral votes went to Stevenson who captured seventy-three total electoral votes, most from the deep South. Eisenhower garnered four hundred and fifty-seven. That Mr. Trump is a landslide.

I have snatches of memories from those early years, one IS the Election of 1956. During those days, my little brother and I stayed with my grandparents at night because of my parent’s shift work at Springs. My grandmother’s bed in one corner of the bedroom, mine in the other and my little brother’s crib in between. On the opposite side of the room from our beds was a woodstove, allowed to die during the winter night and then resurrected in the morning. This night the old RCA radio had been added, pushed in next to my grandmother’s bed. This so my grandmother could keep up with the election results during the pre-computer days of hand counted ballots and a media that didn’t include internet or satellites.

The election process and its “the peaceful transition of power” were a big deal for my grandmother. She had participated in the very first election that allowed women to vote in 1922 and would continue to exercise her hard won right until she died in 1999.

I can’t help but wonder what she would think of “the peaceful transfer” in 2017. I have an idea she would be stoic…suffering in silence as she did when a Yankee, Roman Catholic, Democrat won in 1960. She was always big on being stoic…”it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” unless my brother or I screwed up, then she wasn’t too stoic and we would find ourselves doing the suffering, not her. My guess is she would have said “this too shall pass” which is the philosophy I shall take. I’m just not sure about keeping my mouth shut.

For more of Don Miller’s unique (odd? bizarre?) views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

MAW

We had played together every Monday for the previous two years…that is, every Monday when the sun was shining…regardless of temperature, since we had turned four. A lot of my memories have become muddled with the passage of time or the fact that I was just four or five, but there are bits and pieces I grab on to and, if I hold on tightly enough, they will turn into memories. My recollections of Maw are quite clear. Mondays were Nannie’s wash days and she still held on enough to the old ways that she did her wash outside even though a wringer washing machine had replaced her washboard and tin wash tub. There wasn’t enough room inside the house for the washer, especially after an indoor bathroom had been added to what was once a back porch. The new washer sat on what was left of the back porch. Water was boiled on the old gas range and carried outside to the washer. After the clothes were washed or sometimes “blued” in the old, claw foot style bathtub, they were hand cranked through two rollers called a wringer, an act that scared me to death. I was always fearful a body part might get caught up in it. The clothes were then hung out to air-dry or freeze if the temperature was too low. On days, it was not in use, the washer became my personal spacecraft or tank and, despite my fear, possessed a hand-cranked machine gun or pulsar cannon.

Miss Maggie Cureton was Nannie’s wash woman and friend even though during those days saying that your friend was a “colored” wash woman was not something a white woman could admit. After Paw Paw died and Nannie moved in next door with my parents and their new washing machine and dryer, Miss Maggie became obsolete but was not replaced. Miss Maggie just became Nannie’s fishing buddy. I’m not sure a woman would like to be described as “thin and wiry” but that is the description that I must use. Miss Maggie looked to be as tough as harness leather with strong muscles roping her thin arms. She was also as black as the end of a burned stick and always wore a kerchief around her head, unless she donned a huge straw hat given to her by my grandmother. While small, she could pull her weight and then some when lugging around baskets of water-soaked sheets or stringers loaded with fish. My fondest remembrance of her was the way she addressed me as “Honey Chile.” Her endearment was a little more loving than being referred to as one of the “you chaps” that was as close to an affectionate utterance that I would ever get from my grandmother.

During harvest season, Mondays were also “get ready to go to the cannery day.” The cannery was open at the local school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Garden bounties had been picked Friday through Monday so there was a lot of bounty to be cleaned, shelled and readied to be canned the next day. My grandmother’s front porch became a gathering place for a, impromptu and less than static, soiree that that included family and friends. This “shelling party” ran well into the evening. Beans were snapped and shelled, tomatoes peeled and cored and corn creamed in the cool breeze created from the evening shade on that porch. There were also stories to be told, maybe just a bit of juicy gossip to be imparted and a lot of laughter to be heard. Some days there would be a mix that included corn, okra and tomatoes which would become the base for my favorite dish, Nannie’s soup. Because the cannery was for “Whites Only” Maggie could not go but was always sent home late in the day with a part of that bounty and would later be given cans of veggies. The cost of the whole operation was an expensive penny per can to process.

One Monday morning Miss Maggie did not come alone but brought Maw and his two-year-old sister Bessy along with her. Maw’s mother, Maggie’s daughter, had found work at a church in Lancaster and would later marry the minister. Maw and Bessy were Miss Maggie’s grandchildren. While Maggie was ebony, Maw and Bessy were not. They were more the shade of the rich Luzianne coffee and cream that my grandmother drank. Their skin was shiny and seemed to glow in the morning light which accented their reddish hue. I heard them later referred to as “redbone” and was too young to understand the dynamics of someone who was bi-racial. The shine of their skin was due to the perspiration caused by their already hot and humid walk across the wide, sometimes cotton and sometimes hay, field that separated their home from ours. Maw was my age, a few months older, and stood with his right foot planted firmly on the ground with his left nervously tucked, toes curled, under his instep. Both he and his sister were barefooted and dressed in hand-me-downs as was I, but I had not had to navigate the stubble and briars that had been left behind from the last hay cutting. While only slightly older, Maw was already a half-head taller and several pounds heavier. Not intending to be stereotypical, Maw was the athlete that I wished I could have been.

After our introductions, we spent a few minutes nervously looking at our feet until the contemplation of new adventures came to mind and someone broke the silence. With sixty acres of fields and woods to play in there were plenty of adventures to be shared. My grandmother’s driveway and the “river road” formed a natural triangle that included trees for shade or for climbing. There was a ditch that naturally filled with sand to be moved with toy trucks and cars or to form a battle field where wars could be fought with little green soldiers armed with their guns. This became our play area because it was close enough to the washing area so that our grandparents could keep an eye on us. We suddenly found our voices and for one day a week became fast friends. I remember asking him what kind of name “Maw” was. I was informed that it was short for “Maw-Reese.” Later, as we got older, we graduated to exploring the barn and its loft which could be a castle keep or the bridge of a pirate ship or the high ground for a rousing and, sometimes painful, corncob fight. On occasions, we would simply run amok in the woods that bordered the fields and pasture. As Bessy got older she joined in with the adventures and I found her to be just as athletic as Maw. Lunches of sometimes fried bologna sandwiches were always accompanied by raucous laughter that often-included fresh milk squirting out of our noses. My grandmother referred to us as “being louder than a dozen blue jays.”

Our little idyllic existence would come to a crashing halt in the late summer of 1956 as we began preparations for school that fall. Losing our freedom for school would be bad enough but I would suddenly find out something that I had forgotten for the past two years. Maw and Bessy were not like me. I knew it but had learned, without realizing, that friendships could overcome race differences or could be destroyed by them. The dumb white boy found out that Maw and I would not be attending the same school. Instead, I would make the mile trip to my school, while Maw would have to travel the eighteen miles to his, despite a court ruling that neither one of us knew about that had put “separate but equal” to rest two years previous. I had heard comments after the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling and my parents had even attended meetings to discuss “What are we going to do when ‘coloreds’ began going to school with our kids?” For some reason my five or six-year-old mind had not made the connection that Maw and Bessy were one of those “coloreds.” I remember standing at the end of my driveway with my mother awaiting my bus ride for my first day of school. Despite the expected feelings of anxious anticipation and fear, I also remember feeling a bit of sorrow in my six-year-old heart as the “colored” bus to Barr Street passed me by.
Maw and I saw each other for brief periods during the coming years but too many things got in the way and we drifted apart over time until we did not see each other at all. School, sports, band, new friends and girls all contributed to our form of segregation but I am quite sure that the attitudes of this time played the most divisive roles. “With all deliberate speed….” was more deliberate in our part of the world than speedy and all the faces in my classes looked like me. Twelve years later when I left home and went off to college it was, for the most part, much of the same. My senior year we did have the Springs children—Charles, Harvey and Leroy— who became our “tokens” when “token integration” was forced upon us by that Yankee government in Washington in 1968. They were eighth graders and my brother’s problem. I ignored them less than I ignored my brother. Despite the order for total integration in 1970 there would be no total desegregation for me until I went to work my first year as a teacher in 1973.

During my summer vacation from school in the early Seventies, my grandmother received word that Miss Maggie had passed away. It turns out that she was a good deal older than I thought, in her eighties, and the wages of a hard but well-lived life finally caught up with her. I took Nannie to the service and it would be the first time I had stepped inside of an African American Church. It would be several years later before I set foot in my first African-American home. I realize now that I had never been invited to visit at Maw’s house. I found neither the homes nor churches to be any different than what I was used to…except for the length of the church services that is. We were greeted by ladies dressed in white, given fans to fight off the summer heat, humidity and bees which made their way through the opened windows. With much pomp and circumstance, we were ushered in…all the way to the front of the church but off to the side of Maggie’s family. I was uncomfortable for many reasons other than the heat and humidity. It seemed that the attention being given to us was somehow taking away from the reason we were here – the celebration of Maggie’s “Day of Jubilee.” Despite having recently attended a James Brown concert and being a minority, I realized just how fearful an African-American might feel sitting in a sea of differently colored faces.

I grew up Methodist and, in my heart, I guess that I still am despite my public dunking into the Southern Baptist Church. This funeral service was not very Methodist-like…or Baptist-like. It was the difference between plain white grits and grits that included cheese, chives and sawmill gravy—much richer. Congregational participation seemed to be expected much more than the occasional “Amen” that was uttered by Mr. Gordon in my church. People stood, danced and waved during the many musical selections and the minister, darker and shinier than even Miss Maggie, had a rich baritone voice that was melodious whether he was leading the singing or preaching the Gospel. I was particularly moved by his version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” “Can I get an Amen?”
At the end of the service an usher moved down to us and the moment that I most feared came to fruition. “Missus Griffin, would you and your grandson like to pay your respects to the family?” I had seen Maw and Bessy come in. It had to be them. No one in the church had that “redbone” complexion. While I had topped out at five-foot-nine, Maw was well over six feet and well-put-together, but not as well-put-together as Bessy! Bessy was…was…awe-inspiring with short, afro-styled hair and dressed in a skirted suit short enough to display great legs but long enough for the funeral service. Maw was dressed in a dark suit that had a cut in tune with the times and an Afro that was blown out to Biblical proportions. As we carried on a somewhat uncomfortable conversation I found out that his mother had married a minister with money, moved to Orangeburg and, from her size, appeared to have eaten her way through most of it – money or Orangeburg. Maw was a junior at Benedict, majoring in history which was also my major and Bessy would be attending next-door Allen in the fall. Our conversation was just uncomfortable enough for me to realize that too much time had passed and that Maw and I would never be able to restart our friendship.

It would be years before I learned that I could be just as good a friend with an African-American as I could with anyone else. I am a bit bitter that Jim Crow, Dixiecrats and prejudice had deprived me of that early friendship and possibly others. As I think about it I would guess that my animosity is not nearly as acute as that of the millions who have felt and continue to feel the bite of racism and cultural or religious hatred. I also am thankful that I have most of my own prejudices with the hope that I can be forgiven for having had them.

Thank you Dr. King for helping to change the world for the millions who live in it.

Books by Don Miller may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

AN OLD FARMHOUSE PORCH

I was looking through old photographs from my youth when I realized I don’t have any photographs of my grandparent’s old home place. It also registered, I really don’t need the photographs. Their home, and memories of the man and woman who resided there, are forever etched in my mind.

I can see the house sitting on top of a hill, flanked by an old pecan tree meant for climbing and a tall pine tree meant for little except surviving nature’s many lightning strikes. The building itself was not special or unusual, just a white clapboard structure with ugly hip roofs…and lightning rods on every corner with a matching weather vane in the center. Like dozens of other farm houses found in the area and thousands in the South, it was just a square farmhouse with a kitchen and dining room attached away from the main living area as if by afterthought…or to keep the stove from heating up the rest of the house during this non-air conditioned period. The high ceilings held thousands of memories, especially in the kitchen and dining area, where everyone seemed to congregate when not congregating on the front porch.

An author I am reading, Rick Bragg, wrote, “They say the kitchen is the heart of the house, but I believe the {front}porch is its soul.” I agree and wish I had thought to say it first. This simple passage launched me down a road through fertile fields of memories as soon as I read it.

The porch of my grandparents was not screened or lighted, nor did it have a fan to blow away the heat, humidity or the mosquitos. Oddly I don’t remember the heat, humidity or mosquitos on the front porch of my youth as I do on the front porch of my adulthood. I remember July and August to be hotter than forty kinds of hell inside of the house… but for some reason…the porch was a cool oasis. Facing east toward the rising sun, the southern exposure was blocked by thick and tangled privet hedge gone wild and crepe myrtles.

I remember so much…and yet I’m sure I don’t remember enough. Watching lightning bugs in the late evenings, flashing their equivalent of “Hi, I’m a Sagittarius, what sign are you?” I remember friends and family gathering on its worn boards; sitting on metal rockers and a matching glider or leaning, elbows resting upon the plain concrete columns. They talked about their day, told stories and probably more than a few lies, their conversations punctuated by occasional outbursts of laughter.

PawPaw’s brothers and sisters came from a hill on one side and the small valley on the other, meeting in the middle on my grandparent’s front porch. For some reason the men tended to congregate to the eastern side of the porch leaving the women to “gossip” on the southern side. I remember Grandma Griffin, PawPaw’s mother, ever the lady, spitting her Peach Snuff covertly into a handkerchief rather than into the privet. My Uncle Claude, a deaf mute, sitting on the porch with hands flying, his questions answered and statements translated by my grandmother’s or mother’s flying hands. Aunt Joyce “spooning” on the front steps with soon to be Uncle Bo, their hands together with fingers intertwined. Playing two-man baseball games with Uncle Olin on the grass in front of the porch, the front steps marking first base.

Some evening gatherings combined work with pleasure. After a day gathering produce, the ladies of the homes might meet to shell butter beans or pop green beans, preparing them for their short trip to the local school and the cannery housed there. Later in my life, summer phone calls to my grandmother would include how many green beans or soup mix cans had been processed for the week. Later, as winter turned the gardens brown, my visits home would net those same cans so I might share in the previous summer’s bounty.

The porch was always a welcome place, except for the few salesmen who happened by, selling a vacuum cleaner, encyclopedias or this century’s greatest kitchen appliance. My grandmother was always courteous when she dismissed them, modelling the Golden Rule…except once. An overly pushy vacuum salesman made the mistake of following her to the door and blocking it with his foot as he completed his sale’s spill. He paid for his troubles with a face full of broom and was sent running back to the safety of his old green Chevrolet.

During the heat of the afternoons my brother and I, along with our cousins, might find a bit of a reprieve on the porch when August heat and humidity was at its highest. Make up games were our favorites, although for some reason the telling of ghost stories ranked high. The crepe myrtles might become a ship’s mast or a fort’s guard tower, while the thick privet became a jungle where we might have looked for Tarzan and Cheetah. I remember practicing my tuck and roll, jumping off the front steps and landing ala Alan Ladd in “Airborne.” We certainly had great imaginations back then. Even when the old house lay empty we used to porch as our play house until it was finally torn down, disappearing from our vision but not our memory.

I have a front porch though much smaller than the one from my youth. As my wife and I have tried to unclutter and renovate the rooms inside of our home, the porch has become more cluttered…and not with the memories I would wish. My goal for 2017 is to unclutter the clutter, replace some banisters and repaint. My biggest goal is to just sit on it and enjoy the evening cooling, watch cars passing on the road below, enjoy a cigar…if Linda’s incessant harping hasn’t caused me to quit, and of course appreciate the Jack Daniels that goes with the cigar. I would guess my biggest enjoyment will come from sitting with Gran-Momi Linda watching the grandbabies play. Watch? Not likely.

When I die, if I find my way to heaven, I hope my heaven will involve a big front porch. I would hope without the heat, humidity and mosquitos…unless I’m not in heaven. Hopefully I will find family and friends, catching up and retelling stories from long ago.

Rick Bragg, “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South.”

If you enjoyed this story you might be interested in Don Miller’s book, PATHWAYS, or other books about life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

OUR FOREFATHERS WERE BUILT OF STERNER STUFF!

In honor of our first snow storm of 2017 I am posting a story about our first winter storm of 2016.

Our power is off and I am writing this using the wonderful modern technology we possess, a battery powered laptop. I am also freezing despite the roaring fire I have going and the worry I feel that my lower than normal wood reserves will dwindle to nothing before Blue Ridge Coop gets the power back on. It can’t be much above freezing in here. I also wonder how previous generations survived.

You see, here in the “Dark Corner” of upstate South Carolina, we are having a major winter event. I live in the South where most of our “snow storms” would be classified as a mist if it were rain and an inch of snow can bring
everything to a screeching halt…except the dairy and bread baking industry. Ours was a doomsday forecast with copious amounts of predicted snow falling followed by freezing rain and sleet followed by more snow. We are on the thin line separating more freezing rain from more snow. I pray we are on the snow side of that line and as dawn breaks I see we probably were. It looks to be some six to eight inches of compacted snow and ice. So, let’s get the power back on okay?

Nearly thirty years ago, my wife and I decided to purchase a farmhouse built in 1888. Built on top of oak timbers milled from the land, it had bead board walls and ceilings, pine flooring, wavy lead glass windows, all covered by tin shingles. Thirty years ago, we were big on “ambience,” today we are big on “KEEPING WARM!”

The old house sat empty from the Forties until 1956. It also sat bathroom-less with no plumbing or electricity and no heating system other than the five fire places and the wood “cook stove” sitting in the kitchen. It is my guess most of the winter functions “back in the day” took place in the small kitchen due to the heat produced by that the cook stove…and the kitchen’s proximity to the path that lead to the distant outhouse. The old house also had no insulation until 1956 when shredded paper insulation was blown into the walls. Sixty years later my guess is the insulation has compressed just a wee bit. Thankfully we added a modern “edition” that is well insulated but still the temperature just can’t be much above freezing in here…can it?

Can you imagine keeping five fireplaces and a wood stove fed during the winter months? We found a broken cross cut saw, forgotten in a closet, which I am sure is a tribute to the “stuff” the original owners had. I have a top of the line, modern chainsaw and since my last bout of sciatica from splitting wood with an axe and maul, a yearning for a hydraulic splitter. I can’t imagine keeping those fireplaces fed with modern technology much less with just an axe and crosscut saw. Did they just freeze if someone came down with sciatica? I hear people “yearning for the good old days.” Really? Maybe simpler, less stressed out days. More time to spend with family instead of trekking to and from the office maybe…. Just remember “more family time” might be sitting around the kitchen stove for the heat or family wood cutting and splitting expeditions.

YEAAAAAAA! THE POWER’S BACK ON! Quick turn up the heat! Wait, the furnace thermostat says it’s a balmy sixty degrees. Certainly seems colder. Yes, they were built of sterner stuff…or thicker blood.

If you enjoyed this you can find this story and others like it in the book “Through the First Gate.” More of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf.

HART’S ISLAND

The train headed north, making its way to New York where Allen Kell and the thousand prisoners captured at Sutherland’s Station would be processed into the hastily constructed Hart’s Island Prison Camp on Long Island, New York. Any relief the prisoners had over not being sent to Elmira soon turned to fear and despair. They were told they would head home as soon as the war ended and they took an oath of allegiance to “faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder.” Until their release occurred they were to consider themselves prisoners in every sense of the word. Anyone attempting to escape would be shot.

Within days, the population of the camp swelled to over three thousand, all contained within the confines of less than in five acres. There weren’t enough tents and Allen Kell was thankful to be crowded into a tent away from the camp’s sinks…not that it really mattered. The stench was discernable anytime the wind blew from the wrong direction.

The prisoners received the news of Lee’s surrender with mixed emotions on the morning of their third day on Hart’s. Disbelief, relief, anger and fear coursed through the detainees while the small contingent of guards used up a month’s worth of ammunition until their superiors ordered a halt to their celebrations. Little changed inside of the camp. Poor food, and little of it, boredom, the stench from the sinks and death followed them daily. No day past without burial details being formed under guard to take gray clad soldiers to their final resting places. Buried in mass, their unmarked graves were dug by ex-slaves, nothing to mark their passing or their extreme suffering.

A week later, Allen Kell awoke early with a sense of foreboding. Moving silently as not to disturb the rest of the prisoners sleeping fitfully in the overcrowded tent, Allen Kell stretched outside of the tent flap. As he did his eyes fell upon the flag flying at half-mast outside of the camp’s gate. “Some bigwig Yankee musta died,” he thought. Wandering over to the guards congregated outside of the fence, he stood at attention and waited.

“Whatcha’ want Reb?”

“Who died, must have been someone important?

“President Lincoln was assassinated last night by a yellow-bellied rebel coward. Shot in the back of the head in front of his wife.”

Allen Kell stood silently, dumbfounded and confused, attempting to sort out his feelings. His hesitancy might have saved his life.

“Word to the wise Reb. When its announced at roll call there better be no celebration if you know what’s good for you and your…kind.” He said “kind” as if he had bit down on a turd.

Allen Kell went straight back to his tent and broke the word.
Once again Dugan shot off his mouth, “Well ain’t today the grandest of days!”

“Dugan, you stupid Mick! I should have let you charge the Yanks at Sutherland’s Station. Those Yankee guards are as pissed off as any yellow jacket nest you’ve stepped in. They are just looking for an excuse to shoot us all. We need to get the word out. No one is to celebrate when it is announced unless you want to eat Yankee lead. Go pass the word.” As Dugan turned to go Allen Kell cautioned him, “Dugan, I don’t much care if the Yanks shoot you or not but if you cause the death of anyone else, I will choke the very life out of your black soul.”

Later in the morning the Commandant, Colonel Wessells, broke the word. There was no open rejoicing over Lincoln’s death. A few diehards, like Dugan, silently smiled believing Lincoln’s assassination gave the Confederacy hope but mostly there was fear and confusion. For several days the prisoners feared reprisals. Exercise was suspended until further notice and they were told any groups of three or more seen talking together might be fired upon.

***

Young Wyatt was sick. Too weak to get to the sinks, he had shit himself.

“Gawd, we got to get him to the hospital. The stench is awful.”

It was Dugan. The more Allen Kell was around Dugan the more he wished Dugan had resisted and gotten himself killed.

“As God as my witness Dugan, if you don’t quit yur bellyaching I’ll ….”

“I know, you’ll choke the life out of me…one of these days I might just want you to try.”

Allen Kell felt a touch. Weakly Wyatt pleaded, “Don’t fight! I got the bloody flux ain’t I Allen Kell?”

“No Wyatt, you just got a touch of the ‘quick step.’ We goin’ to get you to the hospital. They’ll treat you and you’ll be right as rain.” He hated himself for the lie. The surest way to die was a trip to the hospital. At least it was shady and airy…and away from the stench of the sinks. Maybe they had some laudanum to ease the cramps.

He and Dugan half carried, half drug Wyatt to the gate. Either one could have carried him by themselves had they too not been in such a weakened state. Allen Kell doubted Wyatt weighed more than one hundred pounds. The guards allowed them to pass and under guard escorted them to the hospital where they turned Wyatt over to the staff.

“Wyatt. You’ll be right as rain and back with us before you know it.”

Wyatt attempted to smile, knowing it was a lie. “Thanks for tryin’ Allen Kell. I want to ask a favor. My momma and my sister live in New Orleans. If you ever get down their way could you look ‘em up? Adele and Lucrecia Noel. They live off Magazine Street in the Irish Channel, all you need to do is ask around. Everybody knows Adele. If you do get down there, can you tell them I was brave?”

“Sure, Wyatt but it won’t be long you’ll be telling them yourself, okay. Just rest now and get stronger.”

He died three days later. One more piece of Allen Kell died with him.

***

A month later, they took the loyalty oath and within a week Allen Kell was headed toward home. Transportation passes and enough bacon and hardtack for a week, two if he was frugal. Four railroad changes to get to Pittsburg and then onto a barge being towed by a side-wheeler to New Orleans. His trip home would have to be delayed.

Until LEGACIES is published try more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

BAGGAGE

It is 2017. Time to make those resolutions that if I’m lucky I will not break by February. I make ten resolutions, one of which is “I will not beat myself up if I break a resolution.” Rather than beat myself up I will reassess where I am, what went wrong and create another goal. For instance, one of my measurable goals is I want to double my running mileage for this coming year but what happens if I injure myself like I did this past year, only running half the mileage I resolved to run in 2016. It’s not the end of the world, just readjust. Another goal might be, I’m going to work hard not to injure myself this year. That one might be a bit tougher to meet if 2017 is anything like 2017.

For some reason, not beating myself up might be the hardest resolution to keep because I equate failure with guilt…sometimes even when I have no control over the failure. A bird dies in China and somehow, I could have prevented it. Therefore, I feel guilty about it. I have a suitcase full of guilt. How full? I ain’t gonna try to pick it up. Jesus Christ forgives me with much more ease than I forgive myself. Believe in him, ask for forgiveness, sins are washed away. My sins are purged and I am whiter than snow. Easy! Except for my head. I participate in a type of self-flagellation, the voices in my head mentally whipping me every time the metaphorical pigeon dies…or the metaphorical suitcase full of sins suddenly opens in the middle of the night.

I’m not an evil person…am I? Sometimes good people do bad things…I have two ex-wives that might disagree. The suitcase is chuck full of people I feel I have wronged. I even feel guilty because I don’t feel guilt for having married a third time…successfully this time I might add…although I am sure I’ve wronged her too. Does serving her coffee in bed every morning off set my wrongs?
My resolution is to dump the baggage. No negative self-speak about how terrible I was. Some of those folks aren’t of this world anymore. One especially. An attractive brunette I should have treated better. Have I already broken my resolution?

I probably should just change my resolution to JUST BE THANKFUL. My wife and family, the grandbabies, a red headed monkey and one I haven’t had time to figure out yet. More friends than I deserve, my blind puppies, one who, as I write this, is trying to get my attention by pawing at a chair I’m not sitting in. The fire roaring in my fire place, dry wood popping. The beautiful sunrises and sunsets, memories of a bluegill causing my line to cut through the water, a red bird visiting my feeders. Being able to get out of bed in the morning and make my own coffee. Early morning walks, the crisp air blowing in my face. Rain or sleet pelting down on the metal roof. Writing even when I do it badly.

Yes, pausing to be thankful is a resolution I think I can keep.

May 2017 be the best year of your life…so far.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf