MUSINGS OF A MAD SOUTHERNER

With the GENTLE insistence of a former student, now a writer, now a mentor, and forever a friend, Lynn Cooper, I decided to test the blogging waters in 2015. Lynn had insisted I was a natural blogger and I decided to take her word for it. I am sure there are people who might disagree with Lynn after my nearly two years of blogging history but it has allowed me to empty my head of all the content which “bothers me so.”

When I began to blog I was mad, as in angry. Dylan Roof had turned our state on its head, murdering nine church worshippers who didn’t look like him in the name of white supremacy. Our governor and legislative assembly promptly lit a firestorm over the needed removal of the Confederate Flag from our state house grounds. I was angry because of what I believed to be misplaced divisiveness over our Southern heritage as opposed to our racial hate. Neither side of the argument seemed willing to concede the other might have a point. Consequently, I decided on “Ravings of a Mad Southerner” as the title for my blog.

No matter. The flag is now gone, if not forgotten, and not a moment too soon to my way of thinking. Dylan Roof has been sentenced to die and I’m no longer angry about the divisiveness over the flag because divisiveness has been replaced by a nationwide derisiveness over our new president.

As you are aware, mad can be defined as anger but also as mental illness or craziness or having enthusiasm for someone or something as in “I am mad about my wife Linda Gail or a big ole plate of shrimp and grits.” My madness and enthusiasm has taken over my anger and I have written about my wife, childhood memories and family now gone, Southern paradoxes and perceptions, food, friends, perceived enemies, battles with my depression and again, “things that bother me so,” such as my colonoscopy. I have blogged in anger over politics, bigotry and racism but will attempt to keep them to a minimum. I decided to include many of my posts in a collection of short non-fictional stories entitled “Musings of a Mad Southerner.” Unlike my blog, I will attempt to group them with rhyme and reason but can’t really guarantee I will be successful. Sometimes random rules my day and my madness. Yeah…random it is.

New Release from Don Miller. Purchase or download today on Amazon at https://goo.gl/Cedc7B

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Old Hardwood Floors

I never know what will trigger a memory. My memories seem to be attached to certain senses. A scent of perfume or the aroma of food. The clink of a stone against the iron blade of a hoe. Something silky to the touch…. Yesterday it was a splash of dropped coffee on our pecan floors. As I knelt to clean my mess I was transported to other hardwood floors and déjà vu moments.

When I first walked into to the original school building at Tamassee-Salem I had a déjà vu moment. The long hallway, with its darkly yellowed hardwood floor, led me back to my old home school circa 1961 or ‘62 when I transitioned to Indian Land Junior High School. It was an easy physical transition, just walk up a short flight of stairs from the elementary school. Both, along with the high school, were all contained in the same building.

I remember long, darkly yellowed hardwood floors and the tap, tap, tap sound my shoes made. The floor shined “tritely” with the gloss of the often-mentioned “fresh penny.” I might have shaken with the fear and apprehension I felt on the first day, both as a student and later as a teacher. There was an excitement and anticipation to go with the fear.

It was a beautiful hardwood floor…before receiving thousands of scuffs and marks from hundreds of children traveling to and fro, reminding me of me in 1962, new and not yet beaten down from memorizing multiplication tables, diagraming sentences and writing out research papers, or an older me in 2001 with a metaphorical new coat of lacquer to hide the scuff marks of my life as I began a new chapter.

There is something beautiful about old hardwood floors, especially the ones in my memory. My mother was almost anally paranoid about her floors, especially those in her small living room and dining room. “Make sure you take your shoes off and do not run in here!” I found out why you didn’t run on waxed hardwood floors, especially in a shoeless, socked feet state. There was a wild collision with a small table, feet, legs and arms flailing wildly as I attempted to avoid a fate worse than death. Time slowed as I watched the globe lamp displaced by my wild slide, teeter back and forth before laying over on its side. A valiant dive to catch the globe ended inches short, or a foot, again due to the inability of socked feet to gain purchase. I watched in slow motion horror as the beautifully painted globe exploded into hundreds of glass shards.

I learned several life lessons on this day, the greatest being you don’t get praised for valiant efforts, you get your behind “tanned”…especially since I was doing what I had been instructed not to do. “Son this is going to hurt me more than you.” Right. It hurt me badly but not as badly as the sorrow in my mother’s eyes as she cleaned up my mess.

The seasonal waxing, even though very few people had ventured into the living room since the last seasonal waxing, became my duty. At a certain, now forgotten age, my mother decided “idle hands (were) the devil’s workshop” and my hands were forced to apply Johnson’s Floor Wax and buff it out, all done by the sweat of my brow. Later I would have visions of a younger me on hands and knees as Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid” was instructed, “Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off.” Thank you Mr. Miyagi.

The smells of freshly lacquered floors are still prominent in the memory portion of my brain. There was a bitter, acrid smell to the oily sawdust used to dry mop the school floor. I can conger the sharp scent from the memories held in my mind. It’s not a bad odor, just the biting aroma of a time gone by.

None of the hardwood floors of my past exist any longer other than my memory. Carted off to some landfill to make room for progress. Replaced by bland, off-white tile with no scuffs or gouges to help tell their story or, as my Mother’s floors, replaced by a retirement village along with the building which surrounded them.

Happily, they exist every time I hear the tap, tap, tap of footfalls in the hallways of my mind.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

MY BROTHER…ON HIS BIRTHDAY

My life was great…until sixty-two years ago. I don’t have the minutes and seconds but know I was four years, eleven months and six days’ old, the center of everyone’s attention and the universe, when my mother brought home a curly, red-headed, not that little, bouncing baby pain in the a$$. My brother. I don’t know when I was told I was going to have a little brother but until our adult years, had I known then…I probably would have sat outside on my doorstep waiting for the stork to show up and blown him out of the sky before the dirty bird dropped his bundle. BOOM! Just so we all know, he has grown up to be a bouncing adult pain in the a$$…not really…maybe.

He WAS SOOOOOOOO FREAKING CUTE. Born with long ringlets of dark red hair, the ringlets did nothing but get longer until there was an open argument over, “The kid needs a haircut.” This argument was not settled until a well-meaning woman expressed, “Oh what a cute little girl.” Snip, snip, buzz, buzz. My mother cried! I wonder what she would think now?

Some nine months into his life, Little Stevie began to irritate the LIFE out of me, first putting himself to sleep by rocking his crib across the floor, creating a sound like boxcars on a railroad track…KA-THUMP, KA-THUMP, KA-THUMP. Once he learned to stand he would shake the slats of his crib or playpen while yelling in baby-ese, “Let me out!” Stevie has always been about making noise. I didn’t let him out but instead, punched him in the nose. It didn’t shut him up but instead added to the den as I made squealing noises from my grandmother switched my legs.

Later Stevie would continue to get me in trouble, this time with his “Cro-Magnon” forehead. Having said something to incur my wrath, he ran for his life CAUSING ME to peg him in the middle of the forehead with a piece of driveway gravel as he looked back over his shoulder singing, “Na, Na, Na, Na, Na.” “Dad, no, no, it was an accident. I threw right at him, there is no way I should have hit him.” Those of you who have taken batting practice from me KNOW my statement is truth! A huge, bloody, red mark became a huge “puff” knot of Biblical proportions, a knot he richly deserved for running into that poor rock like he did.

Stevie continued to put his face into harm’s way, whether it was the line drive I hit off his nose during a pick-up baseball game or the glancing blow a player hit off his sizeable eyebrow during the first batting practice of a season when he helped me coach. Both shots may have been the best delivered by me or our player and a broken nose bridge and multiple stiches wreaked havoc on his dashing good looks. After the second, damage inflicting blast, the emergency room doctor informed me “The X-ray of his head showed nothing.” I pointed out he had wasted his time, I already knew that would be the case. “There’s nothing in his head to see.”

Now let’s understand, my little brother was not incapable of defending himself. My ribcage still aches during cold weather due to a sneak attack involving Stevie’s rocking chair hammering into my back as I bent over to retrieve a toy from our closet.

Showing economic savvy beyond his years, I cannot tally the number of quarters I gave him to get him to leave me alone while I attempted to spark with my girlfriend. To make things worse he told our next-door cousins and I had to pay them too. That little bit of “sugar” sure was expensive.

During my high school years, I mostly ignored my little brother but after our parent’s deaths we did grow closer, even rooming together on a couple of occasions. Our time together on the corner of Towns Street and Orange is remembered with the fondness associated with both the area and the people who resided…or at least lurked there. There was a problem with a girl who swore I was Steve. She had called several times and was sure Steve was trying to avoid her…pretending to be me. He was attempting to avoid her, but it didn’t stop her from showing up at my front door before realizing I was not him. One of many interesting evenings involving the “Orange Street Mashers Association.”

A decade ago, on my fifty-sixth birthday, Steve gave me a card with the grim reaper visible from a rearview mirror of a car. Its caption read, “Beware, objects may be closer than they appear.” That afternoon I had a heart attack…
”GOTCHA!” I received the same card the following year. “GOT ME!”

We are both officially in the autumn of our years now…late summer? I feel the need to apologize for not being the brother I should have been…probably needed to be…especially during his formative years. But then I was an immature young man myself and might have just made things worse. Steve has turned out quite well without my input…which he rarely listened to anyway. A business owner and pillar of the human race despite his disdain for social convention, a man who walks the walk even with an unbridled and sarcastic tongue, a solid husband to a lovely woman who must have been a masochist to marry him.

Provided we stay away from politics, and we are closer in belief than either of us wishes to admit, along North Carolina athletics, we generally find common ground. So, I congratulate your on surviving this long, especially with your sarcastic tongue and propensity for running into hard objects travelling at high velocities. There were times I really had my doubts. HAPPY BIRTHDAY
BRO! I LOVE YOU!

For unique life stories by Don Miller visit his author’s page at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

BE SURE YOUR SINS WILL FIND YOU OUT

“Be sure your sins will find you out.” As a young man, I heard this every time I left the house it would seem…especially if a young lady was the reason for my leaving. “Be on your best behavior. Be sure your sins will find you out.” “You be careful now. Be sure your sins will find you out.” Another way of saying “If you get that girl pregnant your sins WILL find you out.” My grandmother had moved in with us after my mother had been diagnosed with ALS. Dad needed the help and I needed to know my sins would find me out. Invariably my sins did find me out as her warnings predicted. I wasn’t expecting them to find me out today nearly twenty years after her death and another twenty since I heard her utter her warning.

I discovered a message on my land line phone’s answering machine, the land line I use only to provide me with slow internet service. I live so far “back in the sticks” internet service must be piped to me…I know…I have a satellite dish and if I can get satellite TV, I should be able to get satellite internet…but it would provide one less thing to gripe about.

The message was from an aged cousin from far, far in my past. Euleen, pronounced You-Lean, Uncle Hugh and Aunt Eula’s girl, grew up next to my mother. She and Euleen had been childhood playmates, attended high school together and had remained close friends until my mother’s death. Ninety-six and as sharp as a tack, I found out she is still quite mobile, has a strong voice and better hearing than I possess. When she got to the point of her phone call I found out her eyesight was as sharp as her hearing…as was her belief in how people should speak about each other.

“Donnie, I’ve read two of your books and I really enjoyed them. I like the way you tell a story and the way your stories are short.” I told her I didn’t intend them to be that way, short, I just had a limited attention span. She thought my quip was hilarious and then things turned serious. I was about to find my sins had, once again, found me out.

“Now Donnie, I really loved them…but…did you have to use some of the language you used? You called that man an…asshole. That was a bit rude.” When she said asshole, it was said quickly and in a whisper, as if she might be hoping the resonance of the word would dissipate enough not to make it to God on high.

“Yes Ma’am I’m not sure who you are speaking of, but since I described him that way, he must have been one.”

“I know, I’m sure he was, but Eldora and Miss Addie didn’t teach you to talk like that.” Eldora is my mother and Miss Addie is my grandmother and Euleen was correct, they didn’t. Somewhere in the back of my head I heard a chorus, led by my mother and grandmother, echoing the sentiment I had heard so often, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” They had and I found myself apologizing to my ninety-six-year-old cousin because of it and promising to do better. I’m glad she was a hundred miles away and not standing next to me with a bar of soap in her hand. Just so you know, she has forgiven me but not before suggesting I might ask for forgiveness elsewhere.

Euleen said goodbye but not before causing me to envision my own death and its aftermath. After finding my way to heaven, I find myself having to explain myself, not only to Saint Peter, but also to my mother and grandmother. Maybe that would be finding my way to hell come to think of it if. How am I going to explain how I came to write a book about men and their pursuit of women called “Floppy Parts.” I am so screwed. Saying screwed in this context is okay, isn’t it?

LIVER MUSH

I absolutely despise calves’ liver. My grandmother would cook it, sometimes my mother would, even my beloved Linda Gail has attempted it. Smothered in onions and gravy, I would carefully scrape the onions and gravy off the liver, push the liver as far away as the plate would allow and then spoon the gravy and onions onto big ole cathead biscuits. I am sure this practice, as well as applying sausage gravy to big ole cathead biscuits, was a primary reason for my heart attack due to clogged arteries in the mid-2000s.

It’s not the taste of calves’ liver, it’s the consistency. Stringy and tough. I once was served liver nips and feel I must pause to point out, liver does not have nipples. It’s liver dumplins’ made with calves’ liver cooked before being ground with savory spices. It is a South Carolina “Dutch Fork” recipe and yes, I know dumplins’ should be spelled dumplings but it’s just the way we say it…dumplin’ not dumplinnnnnggggg! The dish was quite good, delish in fact, regardless of how you say it.

My dislike for calves’ liver might have been the cooks. My grandmother and mother were not known for their culinary abilities and my beloved was a great coach. It would be during my college days before I knew you could order steak any way other than crisp and brittle. My mother and grandmother did well with fried chicken, biscuits and certain “exotic” dishes like “cooter” soup or catfish stew, “victory” burgers and chicken pot pie. Steak and liver just weren’t their best efforts. My grandmother’s creamed corn was to die for, due in part I think, to the sweat of her brow dripping into it, or the fried fatback it was cooked in. Mom’s butter scotch pie…sorry, I’m having a moment… maybe they were better cooks than I give them credit for. I should also say when my beloved wishes to be, she is a great cook. The last time she wished to be………?

As much as I hate calves’ liver, I like chicken livers…love chicken livers. Fried or marinated and grilled. They just aren’t very good for a heart attack survivor who is trying to remain a survivor. I once tried to make a “poor man’s” chicken liver pate’ stuffed mushroom. I guess there is a reason duck pate’ is expensive and there is probably more to liver pate’ than just ground up liver. My beloved tried one and wasn’t impressed. The puppy dogs ate the mushrooms and left the liver. Not a glowing recommendation.

Which brings me, on a roundabout path, to the point of this story…Liver mush. I am guessing many people are not familiar with liver mush. It is a Southern “thang” made from ground pork liver and hog head parts mixed with cornmeal and spices like sage and pepper. I know the head parts have a few of you scratching your head part, but when a hog is processed, very little is wasted. I should have mentioned souse meat, pickled pig’s feet or pig’s knuckles first. It makes head parts sound a mite bit more palatable. My grandmother would mix the concoction together and form the liver mush into blocks, wrap it in wax paper and refrigerate. I’m sure some of you folks from above the Mason-Dixon line are thinking liver pudding and you would be close. Liver mush is a bit courser. My grandmother would slice it and fry it with onions…I don’t guess “milk and honey” from Heaven could have been any better.

Unfortunately, liver mush is no better for me than fried chicken liver but it wasn’t long ago I had a powerful hankering, which is Southern for an almost uncontrollable desire and in my case, it was not almost. I wanted fried liver mush and onions something awful. I remembered when we ran out of the homemade product we bought Jenkins’s Liver Mush at Pettus’s Store just down the road from the house. That is exactly what I decided to do…except I couldn’t find Jenkin’s in my part of the world and Pettus’s Store no longer exists. I had to settle for Neese’s Liver Pudding, damn Yankee infiltration. It was great, almost as good as I remembered. Then I made the mistake of reading the list of ingredients. You think head parts were bad? Liver and corn meal were listed third and fourth, the first ingredient was the farthest point on the front of a hog’s head. I’m not even going to tell you what the second ingredient was but I know we didn’t put that particular organ in our liver mush.

Will I eat it again? Despite the list of ingredients more than likely. I am pragmatic enough to realize if it tastes good it really doesn’t matter what the ingredients are. I’m also a realist and must admit, fried liver mush is not very good for me so I won’t eat it often. The reason I will eat it occasionally is because it reminds me of people now gone and sometimes warm feelings are worth the risk.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

A TOUCH OF CHICORY

The young woman with the green Ingles apron touched my arm startling me out of my reverie. I didn’t know she was anywhere around…in fact I didn’t know anyone was around. I did know where I was, I wasn’t that far gone. I was standing in the coffee aisle at a local Ingles.

With a huge smile on her face she laughed, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to scare you. You’ve been standing here so long I was wondering if I could help you. You aren’t ill, are you?”

From her nametag, I ascertained her name was April. I wanted to say, “No April, not ill, I’m just an old fart who got lost in his memories and lost track of time. How long have I been standing here?” Instead I simply told the little blond, “April, I’m just trying to make up my mind on whether to buy this Luzianne Coffee with Chicory rather than my normal Folgers Classic Blend.”

Attempting to be helpful, April pointed out, “More people buy Folgers than Luzianne and I’m not sure what chicory is.”

Oh no, an opening for a retired history teacher. E explained, “Chicory is a plant people use for medical purposes and is used as an additive or substitute in coffee. During the Civil War, and again during World War Two, coffee became scarce and people looked for substitutes, chicory was just one.” With April showing signs of nodding off, something a retired history teacher should be familiar with, I simply finished with, “It’s real popular in New Orleans.”

She disengaged, still smiling, “Well if I can be of help just let me know.”

My grandparents drank Luzianne Coffee and if my memories haven’t failed me, Luzianne Tea. I had just noticed the brick of Luzianne on the shelf below my normal brick of Folgers and had a flashback to a Luzianne tin filled with bacon grease sitting next to my grandmother’s stove. In my reminiscence, she was preparing a winter meal. I could see my grandfather sitting at the head of the table preparing to dine on “breakfast at supper”; eggs, grits, biscuits and those canned smoked sausages that I really didn’t like as much as breakfast sausage. The casing was too tough and back then I didn’t know what the casings were made from…which made them even less delightful. Sitting off to the side of Paw Paw’s plate was a steaming cup of black Luzianne Coffee. It must have been winter; a summer supper would have involved fresh vegetables and cornbread. The beverage would have been the Luzianne Tea or buttermilk not coffee. As I fell more deeply into my remembrance I wondered why my grandparents chose to drink “New Orleans” style coffee instead of a more traditional brew. I can only suppose…it had to do with trying to survive hard times.

My grandparents began their matrimonial bliss during hard times, the early Twenties, trying to scratch out a living on land far enough removed from the river to not be fertile bottom land. Before their marriage, they had lived hard with their own families while “farming on the lien.” After their marriage, money became even more scarce when the Great Depression hit. Maybe it got scarce. My grandmother allowed things were already so bad they hardly noticed the Great Depression. To survive, they stretched their money, sewing dresses from colorful feed sacks, my grandfather wearing overalls with patches on top of patches, turning gourds into martin houses, stretching the costly orange juice by adding less expensive tea…you get the idea. It was all about stretching. Nothing was ever so worn out it couldn’t be repurposed it seemed. Later their Spartan life would become even more frugal to assist the war effort during World War Two and many of their practices carried over to better times during the rest of their lives.

One of those carry overs were “Victory Burgers.” Nannie didn’t call them “Victory Burgers” but whatever they were, to me they were the best burgers I ever ate. She mixed the meat with crushed soda crackers or oatmeal, added onions and then fried them crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside. Try as I may, I can’t get my attempts at reproducing them right. Might have been the “special spices” I don’t know about, the lard she fried them in…or the love she prepared them with. Could be any or all but I haven’t found the correct combination. Nor have I been able to recreate her biscuits.

What does this have to do with Luzianne Coffee? I can mentally envision them adding chicory to their coffee to stretch it, just like adding soda crackers and onions to their meat, or sewing dresses from feed sacks…and just getting used to it. Later, when the times got better, maybe they quit adding chicory on their own and just started buying it already added in the Luzianne Coffee. Or maybe Luzianne was the only coffee stocked at Pettus’ Store just down the road from their house. I think I like my first thought better.

April was happy to check me out when I finally made my choice of coffee. She was probably relieved to know I wasn’t a serial killer stalking the coffee aisle. I am enjoying my first cup of freshly brewed Luzianne Coffee. It’s good. Richer than regular coffee…which is the way I view my life. Richer due to the memories of people who now live in my head. My own touch of chicory.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try 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

FISHIN’

For some reason, I awoke from a dream about fishing. I saw an old cane pole bending from the strain of a double hand size blue gill, it’s blue, green and silver body causing the line to sing from the strain the fish was putting on it. After awakening I realize it is still cold and December, rain is pelting on the metal roof and I really don’t know why I’m dreaming about blue gills and the grandmother who taught me to catch them. I may have already shared this story but felt the need to share it again. I hope you enjoy.

My grandmother had what I would describe as a single mindedness about her work ethic. Little would get in the way of what she had scheduled to do. Monday was wash day no matter how cold it was just to get it out of the way. The only exceptions were on rainy days or during harvest season. During the late summer, Monday was also preparation day for Tuesday – CANNERY DAY. Tomatoes were peeled, okra cut, beans shelled or soup mix was readied to be canned the next day. Wednesdays and Thursdays were copies of Monday and Tuesday. One day was set aside to sweep the backyard under the privet, another to weed the rock garden and others to do what she hated most – house cleaning. Early, early mornings were spent milking the cow and some days, work was rearranged to accommodate for the churning of butter and making buttermilk. During the early summer, EVERYDAY was weed the garden and pick the “critters” that might be chewing on plants. Nothing interfered except the meal preparations and finally the harsh late afternoon midsummer sun that would drive her into the shade…of her front porch to start processing vegetables. There was no rest for the weary.

I can see her distinctly in my mind’s eye standing in her garden and clearly hear the “clinking” sound of her hoe contacting the few small rocks that remained in her garden. She is wearing a cotton “sack” dress handmade from last year’s feed sacks, a broad-brimmed straw hat and old lady loafers that had been slit to accommodate corns and bunions. That was pretty much all she wore as I found out one day when a hornet flew up her dress causing her to strip in the middle of the bean field. There is no modesty when being stung by a hornet but young eyes should not see these things. Her face, arms and legs were as brown as the leather harnesses that PawPaw used to hook his old horse to the wagon and the rest of her…obviously had rarely seen the light of day. I think now how old I thought she was but she was just forty-eight when I was born. I was forty-nine when she died.

There were only two things that would drive her out of her garden – rain and fishin’. Fishing was something that she discovered after PawPaw died. I do not have one memory of her going fishing prior to his death although I remember hearing stories about trips to the river, a mile or so distant as the crow flies. I don’t think this was an example of “sport” fishing but was the setting and checking of trotlines in hopes of supplementing table fare…cheaply. Pan-fried catfish and catfish stew would replace the canned salmon that we often ate in the winter. Well, she made up for lost time as she entered her “semi-retirement” after moving in with us and then later with Aunt Joyce after my Dad remarried. It also did not help keep her in her garden that H.L. Bowers built nine or ten ponds and lakes between us and the river…and gave Nannie free entry…and me with her.

I was not her only fishing partner and she would not overuse the Bower’s lakes. I think she feared that the invitation might be revoked if she caught too many fish. There were a plethora of people who would line up to go with her, many who would just call volunteering to take her to the lake of her choice. Some would call days ahead to make “reservations” to go fishing. The reason was simple. The Lord had blessed her with the ability to find and catch large quantities of fish. Miss Maggie would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or might have practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. Full moon, wind from the south or south-east with a rising barometer…time to go fishing. There were times Nannie ignored the signs and, likely as not, she would not be shutout.
Her fishin’ was fishing in its purest form. No high-dollar technology was employed. I once gave her a Zebco 33 rod and reel, maybe the all-time easiest reel to use. She never used it; instead, there would be a thin cane pole or three, all strung with heavy twenty-pound test line and a small split shot crimped a foot or more above a small gold hook. Rarely did she fish with a bobber. All of her extra gear, hooks, weights and line were carried in a paper poke. I remember when she graduated from a “croaker” sack to put her fish on to a line stringer and then finally to a metal stringer. An earthworm, cricket or a wasp larva was lightly presented to where she thought bream were bedding, allowed to sink a bit and then moved in a slow side to side arc. Wham! That strike would likely be the resulting outcome and into the croaker sack a fish would go! For those of you too young or too Yankee to know, a croaker sack was a porous burlap feed bag “repurposed” to put fish or frogs in to keep them alive or, in the gigged frog’s case, wet. The bag would be laid into the water. Frogs—croakers. Get it? Yes, frog legs do taste like chicken.

I would ask her “Nannie, how do you know where the fish are?” She would answer “Can you not smell them?” Uh, no I couldn’t but I can now and she taught me to look for the “pot holes” that the bream made when they were on the bed. That doesn’t explain how she caught fish when they weren’t on the bed. Maybe Maggie was right about the voodoo thing but I suspect it was the fact that she had studied fishing the same way she studied her Bible or the almanac.
Nothing was too big to go in her frying pan and, sometimes, nothing too small. I guess it goes back to being poor during the depression. Small fish were brought home and, if not cleaned, became a part of her garden. The two-and-a-half-pound bream or the nearly eight pound largemouth she caught did not go on her wall. No, that was pure foolishness. An eight pounder could have fed a Chinese family for a month and we were not going to waste it. Hand-sized bream were always my favorite to be pan fried in Crisco using corn meal breading…at least I think it was Crisco…it might have been lard. I’ve tried pan frying them and I just can’t seem to get it right.

There was one August afternoon that Nannie decided to take Maggie and yours truly to Bower’s Big Lake. That’s what we called it. The Big Lake was twenty-five acres of fishing heaven. Bream, catfish and largemouth bass seemed to always be hungry and this day all of the signs were in place. We walked the three-quarters of a mile to the lake, scooted under the gate that cut the River Road, and started to fish from the closest access to water. For the next two hours, we did not move and had it not been so late in the day we might not have left then. Seventy-seven double hand-sized “breeeeeems,” as Maggie called them, over filled our stringer. There had to be forty pounds of fish and, for an eight or ten-year-old boy, a near sixty-year-old grandmother and, who knows how old Maggie was, it was a tough trek back to the house…followed by a couple of hours cleaning the fish. It was worth it the next day as the smell of frying fish permeated the air.

I remember the last time I took Nannie fishing. She was in her late eighties and a bit feeble, but not much. Linda Gail and I loaded her up in my old ’72 FJ 40 Land Cruiser and took her to the dock at Bower’s Big Lake. The weather was terrible for fishing. Cloudy and windy, a gale blew from the wrong direction as the barometer plunged but she hung a couple and we have a picture of her holding a “whale” still decked out in her broad-brimmed straw hat. She had at least started to wear pants by this time and I imagine a cotton “sack” dress would have been a little cool. What I remember the most was her laughter, something that I heard so rarely. When I think about Nannie seldom do I see her smiling. This was a special day as were all of the days when we went fishin’.

I miss her terribly and just don’t seem to get the enjoyment from fishing that I did during those days. I still try to get the spark back and will continue to do so. Sometimes I think to do otherwise would somehow be letting her down. The same is true with my garden. I know I could buy more produce from the money I spend on seed and fertilizer than I actually raise. Fishing, even when they are not biting, is a little like therapy or maybe meditation. I have found it to be a pathway that leads me to memories that I sometimes didn’t even know I had.

This story came from the book PATHWAYS. It and my other books may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

“ADDIE” OAKLEY In honor of my Grandmother’s 115th. birthday

Being a Southern male I do hate to have to admit that when it comes to “shootin’” I can’t hit a “bull in the butt with a banjo…or a bass fiddle.” Because of my inability to draw a bead on the proverbial “broadside of the barn,” I choose to exercise my “God given” right to follow the second amendment using a double-barreled shotgun that sports the shortest legal barrel I can own. Loaded with bird shot, it will shred a mosquito at twenty feet. Loaded with buck shot it will blow a six-inch hole in a door at ten feet…not that I have done either. Man, I feel so manly just talking about it. When it comes to shooting my thirty-eight magnum handgun, you are as safe as a baby in its crib if I am aiming at you. I cannot guarantee your safety if you are standing behind me however. No matter how manly I sound or how Southern I am, I do hate guns. I shouldn’t.

Having a gun is a Southern rite of passage and, although we weren’t hunters, I grew up around my dad’s and grandmother’s twenty-twos and my grandfather’s hammered 12-gauge. That old-fashioned gun was a beauty with a thirty-six inch barrel. I remember him using it only once because, like me, he left the shooting up to his wife. That statement has to do more with my “rifle-toting” grannie, who could shoot the eye out of a varmint at one hundred yards, than with my wife, who has given up hunting due to my dislike of sitting in dark, cold and damp treestands. “Addie” Oakley, “Dead-Eye” Addie or “Sure Shot” Addie…you can take your pick of monikers because they all fit. I don’t know who taught her to shoot but she had a keen eye and a steady grip despite her odd way of holding her twenty-two rifle. Instead of jamming the butt of the rifle against her shoulder, she laid the stock on top of her shoulder turning the rifle to the side. Whatever worked I guess.

Some of my earliest memories of my grandmother include her twenty-two. She carried it everywhere not knowing when she might need it. Whether it was rats at the barn, snakes or a varmint attacking the livestock, she was going to be ready. I once witnessed her shoot a stray dog that was attacking our milk cow on a distant hill inside of our pasture. She yelled trying to “Shoo it off” but when the dog continued its attack, she calmly put a round through its eye while it was on the move…at one hundred yards if it was a foot. Nannie had tears in her eyes as she buried the old mongrel but she had saved the cow.

With her love for birds, snakes were fair game, but she did draw a line at cats. There was no such thing as a good snake and don’t try to explain to her that rat snakes eat rats. They also eat chicken eggs and birds and that was enough for her. King snakes were tolerated because they killed other bird predators so I was taught at an early age how to recognize them. I once saw her put sixteen rounds into a black rat snake that was attacking a nest. Every time she hit it, the snake would wrap itself more tightly around the limb until it moved enough for her to get a head shot. It was shot full of holes. Once returning from her garden through a tangled archway of out-of-control privet, she stopped and “shushed me” while placing the butt of her rifle on her shoulder. In the middle of a patch of iris under her bedroom window, I saw a snake. It was reared up, mocking a cobra without the cowl, its head moving side to side like a periscope. Nannie’s little twenty-two cracked causing me to jump and the snake fell from view. This she did despite it being silhouetted against her bedroom window. No broken glass but when we got there, no snake either. I remember saying in an accusatory voice, “Ya missed!” She pointed at a leaf and said no I didn’t. There was a small spot of blood on the leaf but I’m not sure I believed her until the next morning. As we made our morning trek to the garden, we found a dead coachwhip snake with a bullet wound under its jaw. It had hung itself on a privet root. Don’t mess with “Dead-Eye” Addie or accuse her of missing!

One of the oddest rituals involving Nannie’s rifle was the making of meals. It wasn’t a utensil but the kitchen windows gave her a view of a big cedar tree which had become a feeding station for her birds. Washing dishes or creating the best biscuits known to man, her vision was always focused on those feeders. Periodically, she would stop, wipe off her hands, pick up her rifle and fire a round through the window screen. She would try to fire through previously made holes but that was somewhat impossible and her screen had several twenty-two-sized holes. There would be a “bang” and then she would tell me that a copperhead or sick sparrow had gone to its maker. Nannie would then go back to her biscuit making waiting to move the body later.

So how bad is my marksmanship? As good as she was, I am that bad. Once I went squirrel hunting with a 12-gauge and the squirrel and dumplings ended up being filled with birdshot. Another time early in our marriage when Linda still had ideas about hunting, we were disturbed by what we thought was an intruder. It wasn’t; more than likely it was just one of our ghosts that traipses through the hallways of our old farmhouse late at night. Linda grabbed her Browning 243 while I picked up my baseball bat. Neither had to be used. That is a good thing because…come to think of it, I was never a great hitter either.

For more Southern rural humor by Don Miller click on http://goo.gl/lomuQf

RIVER WALK-IN HONOR OF OLIN GRIFFIN WHO PASSED EARLIER THIS WEEK

The un-named river road by my home, one of several river roads in the area which bore no sign, was a twisting affair that eventually ended up on the banks of the Catawba. To a four or five-year-old the road seemed longer than the Great Wall of China; however, in reality, the path was probably no more than three miles, if that. The Catawba was wide, wild and strewn with boulders. Hundreds of ducks crowded a feeder branch and would rest on the banks or float lazily on the water. My guess is today it would look pretty much the same…except maybe not as wild as I thought, rather slow moving. Back then the city of Rock Hill could be seen on the distant bank across the water. Now the city seems to have crept across the water, invading our side and displacing the ducks.

The river road began at my home and meandered through fields and pasture land, gradually rising, until it reached the hill where the old Collin’s house and barn sat. Then it would rapidly fall through a mixed forest down to the banks of the Catawba. There were many other dirt paths off the river road and my four-year-old self was concerned that we might become lost.

At some forgotten moment in the mid-50’s much of this land would become the possession of H. L. Bowers who began his working career as a carpenter’s helper for my Uncle Hugh Wilson. Later Mr. Bowers invented a process that would reclaim cotton from cotton waste. This process made him a millionaire several times over. He would purchase more than seven hundred acres of land from my grands and my uncles, Banks Griffin and Hugh Wilson, along with several other land owners. Despite his wealth, he was still a country man. I remember many times seeing him bouncing along his pastures in his always brand new Cadillac. With that abuse, those Caddies didn’t stay new very long which is why he purchased the latest model every year. I would guess you would need to purchase often if you treated your Coupe Deville like a GMC quarter ton.
The day was bright and glorious like all days when you are four. The river road still split my grandparent’s land and Mr. Bower’s overseer, Roddy McCorkle and his family, had not yet moved into the old Collin’s place that sat on the highest hill overlooking what would later become a twenty-five acre lake. PawPaw’s corn field and cotton patch were still on the south side of the road and the pasture, watermelon and tomato patches were up hill to the north. Many of my days were spent carrying water to those tomato and watermelons using a pail dipped in the small stream that “sometimes” ran through the property. Later in the fall, watermelons would be placed in the stream to cool and provide a sweet snack late in the day. Farther on down the road sitting off in the woods to the north was a sawmill that PawPaw and his brother Banks ran in the winter to supplement the household income.

I have no idea what possessed my Uncle Olin and Cousin Hall to take me along on a hike to the river. I was a little thing, no more than four. For all I know my grandmother may have paid them to take me just to get me out of her hair. Olin, my mother’s brother, was a tall lanky kid with bushy curly hair–tall as in six-foot-forever to a four-year-old. Hall was the son of Aunt Bess, my grandmother’s sister who lived just up the road from us and whose family ran the general store and cotton gin. Hall Junior was much shorter and sturdier-looking than Olin. Hall, known as Junior during this early life, sported a GI crew cut that he wore until he died. Olin would go off to Clemson College taking advantage of the school’s ROTC program in the hopes of becoming a Navy pilot. His dream would be thwarted by color blindness, consequently, he was forced to serve as an officer in the “blue water” Navy. Hall would join the Army and earn paratrooper wings so one of them got to fly…sort of, I guess. Somewhere in my mind is a snapshot of Olin in dress Navy whites along with a very attractive young nurse also in dress whites. They sure were young…and in love. That young nurse, Gayle Miller, in a fit of insanity, agreed to marry him and fifty years or so later they must still be in love as Gayle somehow has tolerated “Big O.”

They were no more than seniors in high school themselves; well, Olin might have been a freshman at Clemson at the time. Anyway, to me they seemed like Greek gods who had come down from Olympus to put me on their shoulders and carry me to the river, at least on the trip back. Mainly I would ride on Hall’s shoulders because Olin’s shoulders were way too far off of the ground for me to be comfortable. I am sure that I wore out poor Hall but no way was I going to climb Mt. Olin and ride him home. Even today I still get a nosebleed standing on a short ladder.

Hall and Olin were a happy pair, full of LOUD AND EAR-PIERCING laughter that accompanied every story they told and they told a lot of stories. I don’t remember much but do remember stories of catfishing, frog gigging and buzzards. No…no one ate a buzzard but someone, whose initials were Olin Griffin, got a nickname for illegally shooting some, I do declare. On a low bluff we paused to rest before making the trip back home. Both guys became a little more serious as they talked about Indian graves and battles that occurred between the Catawbas and the Cherokee. They told stories that included ghosts and long-dead Indian warriors, stories that might have been intended to scare a four-year-old. That bluff was quiet and a bit eerie. Years later when friends and I would go camping and would tell our own ghost stories, the bluff was still kind of creepy. But…I am sure there are no such things as ghosts.

When I was nine, my grandfather died. It was a gray, cool and misty day, both outdoors and inside of my head. I was sick and can remember my father joining me on the couch to tell me the bad news. My grandfather’s memory would haunt me for the next several months. In fact, that next fall, before school began, I slowly peddled my Schwinn Phantom toward the now named “Bower’s place”, past the cornfield of my grandfathers. It seemed to be a lonely field because it had been left unplanted. I felt a bit of despair and started to shed a tear or five until I looked up and saw a figure in the middle of the field waving at me! He looked a lot like my dead grandfather! For some strange reason, at that moment, my mood lightened. Then the figure dimmed and disappeared. Even though he seemed to just vanish into thin air…I am still not sure there are no such things as ghosts.

When I was older I would end up working those same river bottoms for my Uncle James and then later for Mr. Bowers. Whether I was baling hay or hoeing and pulling corn, there was never a time that I didn’t think about that “River Walk” with my uncle and cousin when I found myself on the banks of the Catawba. Sadly, Hall has passed on and left us now. I called Olin and Gayle last week. They are happy as clams and both much stronger than their age. Their kids and grandkids are close by in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I want take a trip to visit soon, to see them in person. Olin still has that loud and piercing laugh which I was so glad to hear again. As I listened to the familiar laugh which took me back in time, I realized that I need to remind Olin of the River Walk. Also, I feel an especially strong urge to tell him the story about his dad. I wonder if Olin believes in ghosts.