A POWERFUL HANKERIN’

Just say the word DIET and it triggers a Pavlovian response of Biblical proportions. I don’t really have to be on a diet when the word diet is used to trigger the response… a stupid comment, I’ve been on an eleven-year diet. On April 8, 2006, the day before my birthday, I stepped on my scales and they lied! My mind said, “There was no way I weigh in at two hundred and thirty-two pounds”, and then my mind realized I was leaning forward so I could see the scales. I was leaning forward to see over my belly. On April 9, 2006, I received a birthday present, a heart attack. A heart attack will get your attention.

I had battled my weight most of my life but now I was in a full-fledged war. Six months later I weighed one hundred and sixty-two pounds…and looked like a refugee from a famine. I immediately ate myself up to a healthier looking one hundred seventy-two. That’s the last time I was unconcerned about my weight…until just before Thanksgiving of this year when I decided not to worry about it until the first of the year. I weighed one hundred and eighty-five by January 1st. I had to think of that word again. Slobber, slobber, drool, drool.

The word causes me to feel hungry, 24/7/365. Before a meal, after a meal, in the dark hours of the night. The word “diet” gives me powerful hankerins’ for just about anything. Presently my hankerins’ is seafood. Not a McFish Sandwich kind of seafood, real live coastal seafood. The very thought takes me on a mental trip reminiscent of a storm-tossed sailboat without its rudder. You know you’re going somewhere, it’s going to be a wild ride and the outcome may include crashing against rocks.

Sara J’s seafood platter in Garden City, the Captain’s House oyster and artichoke stew at Myrtle Beach, Calabash shrimp anywhere in Calabash, North Carolina. Crabs at Hudson’s on Hilton Head, a brunch involving oysters and Bloody Marys at Shem Creek, shrimp and grits at the River Room in Georgetown along with anything fried at Aunny’s. I am racked with sorrow as I remember Oliver’s Lodge at Merrill’s Inlet will never serve me again because it’s now a private residence. Would they be upset if I just showed up at their door?

As my mental sailboat eased its meandering path with sleep, I found myself dreaming of an old college friend and a roadtrip to his Charleston home during a long college weekend. Bob Lemaster was better known as Renegade during his college days. He earned his nickname honestly with his dark Native-American appearance. Bob reminded me of the now socially unacceptable cartoon character “Injun Joe” in looks and a renegade in actions. Like most of us he matured, found the woman of his dreams, settling down to a normal life…and dropped Renegade for his given name, Bob. This trip occurred during his Renegade days.

The dream took me on a short drive down a long dirt road somewhere on Folly’s Island. Palmetto and scrub pine trees lining the road flew past the windows of Bob’s car like pickets on a fence. Once we arrived, I wondered about the hurry we had been in. Our destination was an old fishing shack or wreck of a house, take your pick, and for the life of me I can’t remember its name. I remember a small, sagging, wrap-around front porch and white paint so old it had grayed into a patina of sorts. I didn’t look for a health department grade and in the early Seventies it may not have been required…I doubt the fish shack would have been serving food had the health department gotten involved.

What the old shack did have was ambience. The wreck sat on a low hill close enough to the ocean for the sound of rollers crashing, the briny smell of the ocean and the touch of salt air, all to reach us and beguile our senses. An almost full moon rising above the horizon only added to the enchantment.

Seating was outside under patched funeral home canopies, on roughhewn picnic tables featuring a large hole in the center. There were no utensils or plates, just newspapers to cover the table and a roll of cheap paper towels. Menu choices were simple. Boiled shrimp, raw or smoked oysters and…well that was it. A short and stocky man with a swarthy complexion brought our choices of food to the table in large aluminum boiler pots and unceremoniously dumped them onto the newspaper covered table. “Bon appe’tit y’all.” Condiments included cocktail and tarter sauces in squirt bottles, a bottle of hot sauce, lemon wedges along with salt and pepper. Beverages choices were sweet tea or PBRs. Shrimp and oyster shells went through the hole in the table and into the trashcan underneath while our conversation drifted quietly with the breeze.

Simple food from the sea…and drinks from grain and hops. Quality seafood smells and taste like the sea and doesn’t have to be battered, seasoned or fried to be great, something the memory of this trip from long ago reminded me of. It also reminded me of a friend from long ago who is no longer with us.

Bob and I, along with several other college friends kept in touch until the early Eighties when a negative change in my marital and job status, along with the depths of clinical depression, made me reassess my life. I made a bad decision to cut people out of my life because they reminded me of the bad times they had no part in. Since Bob’s death I have reconnected with the old crew, Joe, Tim, and before his death, Tom. Bob’s passing persuaded me to reconnect, I’m just sorry I didn’t come to my realization before he died.

Bob, until the day I die, I will remember the no-named shanty, the food we ate and the stories we told. I’m sorry a powerful hankerin’ didn’t occur before you left us.

Just so you know, I weighed one seventy-three this morning and the severe diet is now over although the battle will never end. I think I’m going to get a couple of pounds of shrimp, boil them up in beer and Old Bay before serving them on my picnic table. Probably not going to drink PBRs. The sea and salt air won’t be felt but I can always pretend. Maybe Linda Gail will join me for a dance and I can tell her about one memorable night, an old friend and my powerful hankerin’.

POSTSCRIPT

It turns out my old buddy had us all buffaloed and despite his nickname and appearance, was not of Native American. It’s okay. I am imagining his deep laugh in the rainstorm thundering outside as I write this. Anyway, it’s my story and I’m going to stick to it. Thanks Bob.

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

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DREAM GHOST

Sitting in the dark in front of my computer…a bad habit sitting in the dark but one that seems to suit me. Most nights she comes to me in the dark. Tonight it was easy for me to visualize her leaning against the door jamb while gazing out across the pasture and lake that sat below it. Staring out at a ghost that only she saw? I often caught her in this pose but she never told me what she saw…I was afraid to ask. I was not sure I really wanted to know. Her back was against the jamb with one foot on the floor, the other against the jamb, her hands clutched together between her thighs or wrapped under her breast. Could she be looking back at the past as I often do?

She was a fine figure of a woman and there was still be enough dim light from the outside to outline her curves. I could not stifle the rising heat I felt. A simple white cotton dress…the thought made me ache. I missed how the simple cotton dress slid off her smooth skin and smiled at the memory of being able to produce goosebumps on her arms, the tops of her breast, the…my smile turning downward with sorrow as I remembered…she is gone…gone forever and only alive in my memories and dreams. I had lost her once and then regained her…there would be no reclaiming her again.

It is not healthy but I let my memories take over…like so many nights. The nights were the worst…and the best. She came to me during the night and left me as dawn broke. Tonight she led me to the old car…my…our forty-year-old MGB. It was a fine night to put the top down and ride to…anywhere…or nowhere. She sat with her long legs tucked under her, the hem of her dress tantalizingly riding up her dark thighs. Her smile told me she knew what I might be thinking. As I ran through the gears a full moon followed us making the need for headlamps unnecessary on the old river road. Shadows danced around us as we fled through the night…to our spot overlooking the river with the lights of Trinity highlighting the horizon. As I parked and turned to her she came into my arms smelling like the gardenias growing outside of our front porch. I imagined her soft skin prickling slightly as I touched her.

A banshee screamed in the distance. It seemed to be getting closer. The closer it sounded the farther she seemed to be. “No don’t leave…Please…Not yet.” It was no use. She left me again as I staggered to my feet still trying to hang on to any part of the dream despite knowing it was futile. I was stiff and foggy from sleeping in my chair. The inside of mouth was foul from the last cigar of the night…and the fifth bourbon of the evening. Staggering I found the alarm clock and shut down the shrieking. After washing my face, I was not happy with what greeted me in the mirror. Puffy gray skin only accented the red rimmed eyes reflected back at me in the dim early light. Death eating a shit sandwich. I could not go on living like this…nor did I want to.

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

LITTLE PIECE OF HEAVEN

Paradise was once found on the banks of the Catawba River. It had to be the Garden of Eden. Some three miles by crooked road from the river was my home. I still walk and run the old river road today, although only in my memories and my dreams. In between the river and my home were nearly seven hundred acres of heaven. Seven hundred acres of pastures, forests, fields and ten “fishin’” lakes, one a five-acre “pond” we called the “Pettus Pond” where I caught the biggest blue gill of my life, another, twenty acres of water called the “Bowers Big Lake” where I caught the nearly nine-pound largemouth still adorning the wall in my study. Seven hundred acres of playground nirvana.

H.L. Bowers, my Uncle Hugh Wilson’s former carpenter’s helper and true American success story, had purchased or as the locals said, “bought up” nearly seven hundred acres of forest and pasture land sitting on the east bank of the Catawba. Farther east, the border of his land stopped just short of Highway 521. The reason it stopped short was a cluster of small farm houses, fields, pastures and forest owned collectively by my parents, my grandfather and grandmother along with my grandfather’s brother’s family and their sister and her husband. There were other land owners as well but the main dirt road leading to the old Collins’s house that Bower’s would eventually convert into a lodge ran right through the middle of our property. The Bowers’ “land” and the road to it was where I fell in love for the very first time.

My grandmother taught me to fish, the nuances of tying on a gold number six hook, treading on a wiggling red worm, where to look for fish on the bed and what the signs were. “Can’t you smell ‘um?” “See those pot holes?” “Make sure you keep the tip of your hook covered!” “Look at your shadow! If you can see your shadow so can the fish.” “Keep your pole tip high!” One of her fishing buddies, Miss Maggie Cureton, would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. “East is when fish bite least, west is when fish bite the best, north neither man nor beast go forth, and south blows the worm into the fishes’ mouth.” No it didn’t quite rhyme but a 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.

We began to fish the Pettus Pond in the late Fifties or early Sixties. Named for our Aunt Bess’s family, it sat on land purchased from them. We were blessed to fish there. Mr. Bower’s was being neighborly but he was not neighborly to everyone. NO TRESPASSING signs were posted but those signs did nothing to deter the locals who succumbed to the siren’s call of water filled with fat blue gills, large-mouth bass and catfish. Large fines or being escorted off his land at the wrong end of a double barreled shotgun did not seem very neighborly. I heard many people refer to Mr. Bowers in less than glowing terms due to his reluctance to allow fishing on his land. It took me until adulthood to realize why he might not want his ponds over fished and I assure you they would have been.

My grandmother was in hot demand as a fishing partner. Friends from all around called to set up “fishing dates” even though she was careful not to fish the Pettus Pond all of the time. She did not want to “over stay her welcome” so to speak and only trusted partners got to go to the Pettus Pond…and her “fishing crazy” grandson. It wasn’t where she fished, it was how she fished. Rarely did the fish avoid her hook and her “luck” seemed to transfer to those who fished with her regardless of the water she put her hook in.

Nannie was a traditionalist. Cane pole, heavy line, a number six gold hook with a split shot sinker she crimped onto the line. A paper bag inside of a vegetable basket held her fishing gear along with a can of hand dug red worms, a canning jar of water and a handful of individually wrapped hard candy mints that had softened in the afternoon summer sun. Most of the time she chose to fish without a bobber and simply kept her bait moving until something hit it. I remember her battling a seven pounder into submission. Send it to a taxidermist? You must be joking. Weigh it but then filet it, bread it in cornmeal and put it into a cast iron skillet with a half inch of melted lard or Crisco. Fry until crispy and then eat. True to her poor farming background, nothing was too big to eat nor too small to keep. Pan fish deemed too small for the pan were never-the-less hauled home and incorporated into the garden providing nitrogen to help produce her sweet corn and tomatoes. “Waste not, want not.”

We were happy as larks to fish the Pettus Pond until the Bowers Big Lake was built. Situated below the Pettus Pond, looking at it from a distance was like placing fudge brownies in front of a food-a-holic handcuffed to his chair. Despite the big bluegills and largemouth bass we were catching, in my youthful mind, “The River Stix” had to be just below the Pettus dam. Somehow I got into my head, the bigger the water, the bigger the fish. In this case I was correct but as I get older I find I miss the smaller confines of the Pettus Pond or maybe I just miss my grandmother.

Today it is late April and two days past the full moon. It would seem we have had our three days of spring and summer is now upon us despite the early date. I’m probably going fishing tomorrow evening provided I get my honey do list completed. I don’t have the passion for fishing that I used to have and haven’t since 1999 when my favorite fishing partner left this world. Don’t get me wrong. I still fish but it might be for the same reason I have for my much too large garden. I know I could buy more food with what it cost me to raise mine but the food is sweeter because of the memories. I have the same sweet memories when I fish.

Don Miller has also written three books which may be purchased or downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

EARLY THIRTY

Too many years of getting up early at early thirty I guess. I am standing in front of my western facing kitchen sink window admiring the full moon as I prepare my morning coffee. It is cold and crisp with not even a whisper of a breeze. “La Luna Llena” seems so close that I might be able to reach up and touch it and I have no clue as to why I think of it in Spanish. The moon light is causing the snow that still lays on the ground to glow brightly and seems to brighten my backyard forest, illuminating it in an eerie light.

I normally don’t have to set an alarm to wake up by five o’clock despite having no place special to be and an icy driveway that would prevent me from going out anyway. This morning my rambling “dream thoughts” awoke me at four thirty along with a puppy dog wanting to go outside. It is mornings like this that I am glad my “dream puppy” awoke me. Most mornings in a time gone by I would get up at four-thirty so I could run or walk before school. This habit has been hard to break. I always knew that if I waited, my labors would not get done and I really didn’t want to feel that elephant sitting on my chest again that I associate with an earlier heart attack. As scary as the outside darkness could be, even with my “miner’s lamp” style flash light, I loved running, probably more so walking, on mornings like this…even with the twenty degree temperatures.

The light cast from the full moon was so bright that most of the time I really didn’t need to use a flashlight. I would climb up the hill on Airline Road and crossover Highway 11 to the drive leading into Lookup Lodge. It was as if the moon was following me, always right over my left shoulder until it disappeared behind the small mountains to the west. Above me, and to the east, Orion still hunted despite the pre-dawn glow of the still unrisen sun. As I chugged, wheezing and gasping, out of what I called the hole and climbed the asphalt path up toward the lake, I always knew that both the moon and Orion would be waiting for me as soon as I topped the next hill and found my way to the eastern side of the lake. I also knew that I would pause, stop timing my run, and admire the scene of the setting full moon over the lake.

It is still too icy for me to get out this morning and with an attack of sciatica trying to hang on, I will resist my urge to do so. I think I am going set my alarm for four-thirty tomorrow, just in case. I think there will be enough light from an almost full moon left to make it worth it. If not, it will still be worth it.