Southern Horror

I guess I should add a disclaimer from the get-go.  My post is not about the horror of an unexpected swallow of unsweetened tea or being served grits without salt, butter, or cheese.  No, that goes well beyond horror.  This is about the horror genre and its effects on the unexpecting.  The effects of being so scared your feet refuse to move. 

A pair of New Englanders find themselves lost, stuck up to the axles of their ’56 Ford in the middle of a Southern piney woods.  The light is quickly failing over a dilapidated Southern mansion sitting at the end of an overgrown drive.  Brothers, they discuss what to do and decide to spend the night in the abandoned mansion.  Never a smart move if you are familiar with Southern Gothic.

The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
Photo by David Bulit

As they walk to the mansion a flock of pigeons are spooked…the makings of a Southern Gothic horror story for sure.  I can think of dozens of reasons it is a bad idea to spend the night in an abandoned mansion but then I have seen too many movie and TV episodes and have read too many horror stories.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Gothic Horror, specifically Southern Gothic Horror. That would be June 6, 1961.  It was a Monday night in front of a black and white TV.  I watched and listened to a lisping Boris Karloff introduce this week’s Thriller episode, “Pigeon’s From Hell.”  Murder by ax, Voodoo, Zombies, the Blassenville family with a history of abuse, all with bad Southern accents dripping from the screen like Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.  

I jumped when character Johnny Banner is caught in the afore mentioned flock of pigeons, pigeons that represented the lost souls murdered. Later, I hid my eyes when the same character attempts to split his brother Timothy’s skull with a hatchet.  He does this after having had his own skull split by persons or “things” unknown. 

Love me some murdering Zombies with split skulls although my former Haitian baseball player says Zombies are a movie creation…wait was he Haitian or Jamaican?  Does it make a difference to Zombies? 

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
Johnny ready to give forty whacks…wait, wrong movie.

Many years later I would read the short story with the same title the TV episode drew from.  It was written by pulp fiction icon and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard.  The story was published posthumously in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror magazine in 1938.  Despite “Thirties noir speak”, it is a good short story and a better story line than the TV version. 

Weird Tales - Wikipedia
Image from our favorite Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

There is something baleful about abandoned Southern mansions, with or without pigeons or Zombies.  Doors and shutters hanging askew, broken windowpanes, paint peeling to expose the silver of many layers of whitewash underneath, old chimneys collapsing under their own weight.  Columns…one can almost hear the voices of the dead and abused in the breeze especially if you have an active eleven-year-old imagination…even an active seventy-year-old imagination.

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
The decaying Blassenville sisters killed by…well, you’ll have to watch the episode on YouTube to find out.

In the late Sixties, our group of high school friends decided to explore the Brattonsville Plantation house near Rock Hill, SC…in the dead of night, near what is universally known as the witching hour.  Alcohol might have been a contributing factor; I don’t rightly remember.  I do remember there was a Mars/Venus component as we males wanted to impress the young women among our group.  Young women make young men stupid…stupider.

I won’t deny feeling a bit of trepidation as I thought about how close the name Blassenville was to Brattonsville and wondered if anyone had been practicing Voodoo within its less than comfy confines.  Pigeons?  Are there pigeons?

During those days Brattonsville was the perfect example of a “rundown” and abandoned Southern plantation.  The homeplace has since been renovated to its Antebellum glory as have the other buildings but I do not remember them that way. The mental vision I have is of a place perfect for Southern Gothic Horror.

I remember there was a full or near full moon and the unkept grounds seemed to glow with a light of their own as we made our way to the huge mansion house. In my mind I see the first story entryway door standing open, under the twin galleries’ roofs. The darkness beyond is inviting the lambs to a possible slaughter. 

Homestead House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Restoration of the Homestead began in 1975 and it was opened to the public a year later. http://chmuseums.org/history-hb/

One of the members of our group was well versed in Brattonville’s “supposed” history and regaled us with stories of a less than sane family, abused slaves, the Klu Klux Klan, cruel medical experiments and a Yankee spy hung from a pulley above an attic window.  Owned since before the Revolutionary War by a series of doctors, our historian told tales that made the Bratton doctors seem to be the combinations of Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Phibes.

We explored all the rooms and made our way to the third-floor attic, site of the medical laboratory and the hanging according to my date’s history lesson.  I had overcome my initial fear and found myself leading the group, not because of my bravery I assure you, but because I had the only flashlight.

Built for John Simpson Bratton Jr. and his wife Harriet Rainey Bratton in 1856. Then called “Forrest Hall,” it is now known as “Hightower Hall”. It could have been its own haunted mansion. https://chmuseums.org/hightower-hall-hb/

As my cute historian told her story of hangings and medical experiments, I found myself in the narrow and empty attic lab…not exactly empty.  There appeared to be examination tables and I fully expected to see a medical skeleton. Instead, a breeze drew my attention to an open window and the figure hung with a perfect hangman’s noose suspended there.   

I froze in place while my five friends took off like scalded haints.  My brain said run, my feet refused.  I might as well have been a tree rooted in place.  I froze long enough to realize what I was seeing was a department store mannequin.  The plastic kind…in fact one of its legs had fallen off.

As my fright dissipated, I found my feet and walked closer.  As the mannequin slowly turned in the breeze, I noticed a note held around its neck by a cord.  My flash revealed a single sentence written in red lipstick…”Mickey Mouse is a Jew.”  Yeah, kind of anti-climactic but a sentence that has kept me wondering for over fifty years. 

My friends? They didn’t leave me…I had the car keys. It did take a while to gather them up.

Historic Brattonsville main house.jpg
The Main House at Brattonsville with the memorable attic window visible
Picture by Zan Maddox of LaValla Maddox Design.

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The history of Brattonsville (documented history) includes  

The original home was built in 1776 by Colonel William Bratton who participated in the nearby Revolutionary War Battle between Patriots and Loyalist, The Battle of Huck’s Defeat. Brattonsville was used in the filming of the movie, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.

There was a one night stay by Jefferson Davis as he fled the surrender of Richmond in hopes of reaching Confederate troops in the South or West. (Supposedly this is when the spy was hung but I can find no documentation.)

Dr. J. Rufus Bratton, a York County Klan leader, was the inspiration for the book The Clansman and the 1918 movie it spawned, Birth of a Nation. I am not telling this with any sort of pride but history is history. My guess is Dr. Rufus Bratton was not a nice person when it came to race relations.

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Don Miller’s authors page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0pjOyQmBib8Mbptaegd7cbdhBk1Dqd3AwEssRjtjCtVGq4zxV2P_c9zKk

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The featured image is from another Southern Gothic film, Swamp Water, starring Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, and Walter Huston.

Sunday September 15, 1963

Sunday September 15, 1963…I doubt I paid much attention to the happenings in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  I probably paid more attention on Monday when Walter brought the CBS Nightly News as the family gathered around the black and white TV, chewing soggy TV dinner fried chicken and cardboard mac and cheese. 

I pay more attention now. The past can be painful. Ignoring the past can be moreso. Four young girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14, born April 18, 1949); Carol Denise McNair (age 11, born November 17, 1951); Carole Rosanond Robertson (age 14, born April 24, 1949); and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (age 14, born April 30, 1949), were killed in the attack as they attended Sunday school…Sunday school. Addie Mae’s sister, 12 year old Sarah, had twenty-one shards of glass embedded in her face. She was blinded in one eye. Fourteen others were injured and there was another death. Some nineteen or more casualties to the war that was Civil Rights.

1963: Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church
Sarah Collins recovering from the attack. Photograph by Dawoud Bey.

I do not know what I thought.  I do not know what my family thought.  We were not the types to sit around the dinner table discussing Civil Rights, race relations, and the deaths of four young girls in the city that became known as “Bombingham.” I honestly don’t know where my parents stood on racism and Civil Rights. Considering all possibilities I guess that is not a bad thing.

I don’t know for sure what my classmates thought during school that Monday morning. There was no discussion of the travesty that had occured in my eighth grade civics class…my all white class in my all white little school.

I was thirteen. Just about the ages of the girls killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  I wonder what I thought.  I am sure I was more concerned about the pennant race in the National League than four deaths in Alabama.  The Dodgers were battling it out with the Cardinals and held a one game lead.  On September sixteenth they would begin a series with the Dodgers one game up.  In the American League the Yankees had run away and hid in 1963.  I knew baseball standings, but I didn’t know the names of the girls now gone.

It is not that I was unfeeling, I was thirteen, probably an immature thirteen.  I was more concerned about baseball and the Playboy magazine I had snuck into my bedroom.  There was that little blond-haired girl that stirred feelings and reactions I simply did not understand.  Alabama was a place far, far away and the lives lost unknown to me.

Occasionally thoughts would enter my teenage mind.  “How is this right?”  I was not ready to go marching with Martin Luther King but images of burning buses, fire hoses, and now rubble were having an effect…a lasting effect.

My grandmother had taught the Golden Rule. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t treating these people the way we wished to be treated.  Why were people so angry and why did they all look like me? Why didn’t I have the guts to act?

I couldn’t understand the lack of empathy from friends either…as I can’t understand now.

The last of the three bombers died in prison this past June.  I will not speak his name. He was eighty-two.  He was not brought to justice until 2001…none were brought to justice in 1963, not because their identities were unknown, because of the system that was in place…a system that is still hanging on in many places.  The three freely lived their lives as if nothing had happened, one for thirty-seven years.  He lived freely thrice as long as the little girls whose lives he helped to take. 

I’m thankful I’m not the same person I was in 1963.  I was a child of the time and carried my racism with me well into my adulthood.  My change occurred over time, there was no sudden flipped switch.  It was the realization that what I saw and heard was at odds with what I had learned despite my grandmother’s best teachings.

I still have my moments.  I still carry my racism. Thoughts I wish I didn’t have, thoughts I pray forgiveness for.  I pray for understanding, pray for peace among all God’s children.  Prayers that don’t include forgetting but do include forgiveness.  Prayers for taking the first step toward healing which is the recognition and acceptance for our sins. 

Don Miller writes on various subjects that bothers him so. His author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0C336Kj_qD1fHk40ybRg8b7CHHd6f8KYcGIC44-qIqsbZJGjv0WdXaeKI

  

Historia Arcana

“The deeper you penetrated into the true South, a Protestant land of moral absolutes, Baptist blue laws, tent revivals, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, good and evil, black and white, and damn little room between.”  Greg Iles, The Bone Tree

And bitter hypocrisy thrown in for good measure.

According to a “too large” number of my Southern brethren, racism hasn’t existed in a while…and if it does it is reverse racism.  All groups supporting social justice and the removal of monuments and flags are Marxist and radical, and the worst danger facing our country has nothing to do with the reactionary right.  Our President has even given us a new group to hate, the “radical fascist” which sets my teeth on edge just thinking about it.

Histories are written by the victors…or are they?

In the middle of the Sixth Century, the last great ancient Western historian, Procopius of Caesarea, wrote Historia Arcana which translates to The Secret History.  He hoped it would never be published, and it was not until well after his death.  It was to be his if needed, ‘get out of jail’ card.

The history chronicled the seedier sides of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and his wife, Empress Theodora.  It is not a glowing history and shows the author’s disillusionment with the Byzantine Empire.  Justinian is portrayed as cruel and incompetent, Theodora, vulgar, and lustfully insatiable.  I feel some of Procopius’ disillusionment today.

No, it is not the history Theodora and Justinian would want to be published and it was not published until nearly a thousand years later.  The sixth-century power couple would go on to be sainted by the Greek Orthodox Church.  Their hidden history remained hidden until it no longer mattered.

I have seen the same with some of our own “sainted” folk.  The heroes of Southern culture and heritage.  In the South, we guard our “historia arcana” with a tenacity unmatched by the rest of our nation.  Families of now-departed men and women hope their histories remain secret.

I’m reading Greg Iles’ Natchez Is Burning trilogy and stumbled upon the above quote on the first page of the second novel, The Bone Tree.  The original book, Natchez is Burning, while fictional, is based on a period in our history that anyone south of the Ohio River would like to forget.

The novel is fictional but based upon historical facts…the treatment of African-Americans during the Fifties and Sixties and how white men got away with the murder of black men and women simply because they could.  A period we are being asked to move on from without recognizing how evil it was or how events from forty or fifty years ago…or one hundred and sixty years ago…or four hundred years ago could actually affect the time we live in now.  Just move on…there is nothing here.

Any Southern town, large or small, has its share of “secret” histories…histories that display our dirty unmentionables, the soiled petticoats displayed as we try to navigate the deep mud puddles of Southern history before quickly dropping our antebellum gown to cover our ankles and muddy shoes.  Like Justinian and Theodora, it is a history we would prefer not to read in print and only speak to in whispered tones if we speak of them at all.

The mud stains are still on our shoes but we do our best to make sure they are out of sight.  Historical accounts we have purged from our memories it seems…or at least the “dark” part of our histories.  Histories so well hidden, a Southern, seventy-year-old retired history teacher didn’t know they existed.

Accounts we claim never existed at worse or were not as bad as were made out at best.  “Why can’t we just move on?” is a question reserved for the propagator, not the victims.  Maybe I should again pick up Faulkner, O’Conner, Williams, Yerby, or Gaines again.  Even in their fiction are large kernels of truth.

Men and women are human, with human failings.  Men and women can be both good and bad at the same time.  Bad…good old Baptist guilt or Calvinist repression, not necessarily the point.  This is more collective guilt…a collective guilt we refuse to accept or acknowledge.  The guilt we have turned into a “Lost Cause” and “Forget Hell” is only reserved for one side of the argument.

As we debate the removal of statues and memorials, the elimination of one hundred and sixty-year-old eulogies made of cloth, disclaimers added to eighty-one-year-old motion pictures, and the changing of aging athletic nicknames and mascots, we pontificate about what seems to be different histories from the same place and from the same time.  Some pray to the gods of the status quo, the good old days, while others are breaking under the burdens we refuse to remove.

Good men doing bad things or is it bad men doing good things…or is it just human nature to cover or change what is unpalatable for us?  Is it human nature to resist change or just a Southern cultural trait?

There is the fear factor too.  Fear that somehow we will lose control of what we have controlled for so long.  Similar to the old question asked by good Protestant ministers so long ago, “What will we do when they run off with our wives and daughters?”  We still look for boogie men under our beds and label them as Marxist or radically “fascist” whatever that is.

I do not know where to stand on statues and memorials.  I know, despite my deep Southern roots, I will not stand next to them in defense.  My great, great and great, great, great grandfathers may be rolling in their graves.

Our statues and memorials are tributes to men and to histories most unsavory but they themselves are not history.  They should not be celebratory, should they? They are reminders of not only heritage but the hate some of that heritage rests upon.

Having taught history, I never used a statue or memorial as a teaching tool but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as teaching implements…provided those monuments are teaching the “real” histories which are found not on lists of gallant Confederate dead etched in stone or on mountains, but in the pages of primary documents and historical works.

We must focus less on gallant propaganda and more on the facts.  We need to recognize that our history didn’t end with the beginning of the Civil War.  We need to question why some men died to “make men free” and why others resisted…no matter how bitter the taste of the fruit of that resistance might be.

All countries have shame.  We are not unique.  Many countries have tread on the weak for national and economic gain.  We are no different.  We are not even the only country that has not come to grips with the travesties we have committed.  We are not the only country to ignore our travesties and attempt to squash the message of those tread upon.  Unfortunately, as a child in the Fifties, I bought the propaganda of American Exceptionalism.  I really believed we were supposed to be better than other nations.

I  admit to ignoring problems in hopes they might go away.  They do not.  They only grow worse and ours has festered for over one hundred and fifty years.  I have also learned when faced with an issue, the most unappealing and unappetizing option is probably the correct one.

Here in the Bible Belt, we are filled with religious indignation and justification toward anyone who questions authority…unless it is a fellow Christian of a certain race.  It is as if by conforming to a God’s will we give up the right to think on our own.

Here in the Bible Belt, we have tied our Christianity to our politics, and any afront to our politics is perceived as an affront to our religion.  I am seeing this more and more concerning “peaceful” protesters and reactions to “other” religions.  Too many “good” Christians wrapping their Bible in a flag and calling their racism and bigotry patriotism.

As I read Iles’ quote I thought back to my youth and own privilege.  I grew up a Methodist Protestant, graduated from a Lutheran institution of higher learning, and committed the mortal sin of marrying three Baptist women.  If at first, you fail….  I once considered taking up the mantle of religion…God does work in mysterious ways.  It is my historia arcana.

Moral absolutes were something I obviously had a problem with as did others.  I have just now learned others did a better job of covering theirs up and have throughout history.  In towns large and small, men and women have been willing to hide their moral absolutes away when it suited.  Good men and women doing bad things and praying for absolution on Sunday morning? Justinian and Theodora?  Or was I just cursed with the ability to see grays in among the blacks and whites?

I remember the revivals and the Blue Laws, the hellfire and brimstone sermons conjuring the smell of sulfur.  Hot and sticky Southern Sunday morning humidity with funeral fans working against the oppressive heat.  The preacher pounding his Bible before issuing his alter call, a closing hymn…benediction, please.

There was no gray, only heaven or hell, no in-between.  I remember the Wednesday night and Sunday morning Christians, the amen corners, the tv evangelist, and faith healers.  Billy Graham’s piety on display in black and white while George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art.”

I remember being taught from the pulpit, white was good and black was bad.  When white was virtuous and black was evil.  I remember when we used the same arguments a lifetime ago that we recycle now.  I remember our historia arcana and feel the shame that we can’t seem to overcome it or even admit it.

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Iles, Greg The Bone Tree: A Novel (Penn Cage Book 5) (p. 1). William Morrow. Kindle Edition

The image is from The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s online portal.  https://nmaahc.si.edu/

Don Miller writes on various subjects that bother him so and in various genres.  His author’s page is https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2syCHGI2Eb96lK63frT528V_cBY995j2m_hd_LOLFPdV4KqqoZQn1J7Fs

Shut up and Listen

 

It’s time for white folk to just shut up.  We are not listening.  We are shouting down the message.

Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick peacefully took a knee and we (White Folk) shouted him down.  Athletes who joined him were called sons of bitches and threatened with firings.  A blonde-haired news pundit told an athlete to “shut up and dribble.” Conservative radio wrapped their racism and white nationalism with the US Flag and made it about disrespect instead of listening.  Award winners who dared to use their medium as a platform were told to just accept their award and shut up.  Be quiet so we don’t have to listen.

Why? It’s easier to be tone-deaf if you don’t have to listen.  You can be happy and secure with your head stuck where the sun never shines.

Four years later, what has changed?  I’m being kind, I could have asked twenty years later? Or thirty….  Nothing.  Systemic and institutional racism is still in place along with the double standard that is our justice system…and white people are still attempting to shout down those who are affected the most.

You dare to question this great country?  Just shut up and sit down, or move.  “Don’t like it here, go back to your shithole country.”  If we shout long enough maybe a bigger story will come along during the next news cycle to make people forget.  People do forget…white people.

White folk needs to shut up and listen.  Violent protest is not constructive…you are preaching to the choir if preaching to me.  It ain’t about me.  The white folks who have the most to lose are using it to drown out the message.

Our forefathers put the system into place, and we have guarded the fire of discrimination as if our lives depended upon it.  Not all, I believe the loudest shouters are in the minority and are the ones guarding and fanning the flame of racism and intolerance.

It is time for the silent majority to shut out the shouts of the minority haters and decide what we believe in.  We can’t afford to sit on a fence that may burn down from under us.  Shit or get off the pot because it is not the responsibility of people of color to destroy an oppressive system.  A system, we, as in whites, put into being…and have maintained since the end of the Civil War.  We must be the ones who dismantle discrimination and we can’t do that without listening.  We have to make dialog possible…by shutting up and listening.

“But things are better aren’t they?”  I don’t know.  I’m an old white guy.  Maybe you should go ask a friend of color…and listen quietly and intently.

I don’t believe white people get to make up the rules for acceptable protest.  We don’t get to share cute memes of MLK’s nonviolence without also sharing his quote “Riot is the language of the unheard.”  To do so is as hypocritical as “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” when we have a system that openly disparages, marginalizes, and discriminates.  

Before we shout about violence, we need to accept our own.  My lifetime memories are full of scenes I’d like to forget.  As a student of history, I am aware our history books are full of glossed over white initiated violence in the name of expansion, manifest destiny, imperialism, and racism.  Glossed to the point it doesn’t exist.

King’s peaceful protests were met with burning buses, police dogs, and water hoses. King’s belief in non-violence got him killed.  Murdered by a white man with a gun, trying to maintain the flame of white supremacy.

“Oh, but that was long ago, people just need to get over it.”  People can begin to get over “it” when we admit and accept our sins and the sins of our forefathers.  I don’t believe we’ve done that.  I think we have done nothing but shout our excuses and what-about- isms.

The riots from the Nineties disappeared from our rose-colored sight and out of mind…and little was accomplished. The same with protests from more recent history.

I’m an old white guy who doesn’t understand how burning down your neighbor’s house because you are pissed is positive.  I won’t ever understand it.   My time and energy, and yours, would be better spent listening with an open mind and attempting to understand why there is so much anger and frustration.

If you find it easier to believe in leftwing plots, led by George Soros or Bill Gates, the Democratic Party, Antifa or the Illuminati…if you believe it is a rightwing plot, led by Donald Trump, the KKK, The Church of QAnon or other far-right groups, you are part of the problem because you would rather face made up problems than real ones.  The real one is too painful.

Are they organized, certainly but I don’t believe it is a Dark State plot.  Activism is not a dirty word and it is not anarchy.  Are there bad players at work  Sure, but you are allowing them to shout over the message.  You are not listening.

You are the ostrich with your head in the sand or worse if you don’t believe people of color have a reason to be mad.  You are shouting instead of listening because you don’t want to hear the truth.  You are afraid to listen to the pain, anger, and frustration of your neighbors because you might have to acknowledge we live in a racist system.  You are helping to fan the flame whether you want to or not.

In 1968, King died from an assassin’s bullet. The white shouts were almost the same as today.  The streets were burning and National Guard troops patrolled American cities. The cries were of anger, sadness, and frustration.  We didn’t listen.  We were too busy shouting about radical agitators as we watched the newsreels loop.  We wouldn’t shut up long enough to listen.  It was 1968 or is it right now?

In 1992, LA burned after four LA policemen were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King.  They were caught on camera for the nation to see.  The National Guard was on patrol again and there were the same shouts, the same excuses.  We didn’t listen.  It couldn’t be about a racist system.  It was 1992 or is it right now?

Do we repeat the same sins by drowning out people in pain or do we shut up and listen?  Are we willing to push for meaningful change or wait for the next tragedy to drown it out and return to the status quo?  Are we willing to change?

George Floyd’s death was awful, but it only cast a light on one symptom of the disease.  The disease isn’t terminal yet but it is moving swiftly in that direction.  Shut up and listen before our racism kills us.

 

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Featured Image:  https://steemit.com/life/@domioanna/just-shut-up-and-listen

Don Miller’s author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1IWVKrQFOwlgUOn0jXI0N85XUF4AFM-IgNPqW7PE1GGK23l7PJUvho9Fs

 

For What It’s Worth

 

The song has been running in my head since I heard it early this morning as I tromped up and down the hills around my foothills home. The pain of the steep hills has been replaced by the pain of my broken mind. I’m not depressed, am I? “Children what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down” reminds me of a flushed toilet with its contents circling before disappearing. Maybe I am depressed.  Thank you, Buffalo Springfield and my playlist.

The song became an anthem for the anti-war crowd in the late Sixties and early Seventies but was not written as such. It was written to protest a curfew put into place around the famed Whiskey a Go-Go, a West Hollywood music venue. The status quo (read conservative adults) had become upset about the noise, loitering and traffic congestion caused by crazy kids high on life, “Young people speakin’ their minds, are getting so much resistance far behind.” The culture clash became known as the Sunset Strip curfew riots and featured counterculture clashes with the Los Angeles Police.

My thoughts, my thoughts…. In the late Sixties, I was not a member of the counterculture. I was still the proud, flat-top sporting, John Wayne adoring, “my country right or wrong” conservative.  I’m still proud just not as conservative as I once was.  My country can be and has been wrong.

I grew out of my flat-top during my high school and college years but no one would have confused me with a long-haired hippie freak.  I ignored protest music for the soulful sounds of rhythm and blues and Beach Music, and bells and Jesus sandles for Weegins and stifly starched khakis.  Afterall if it didn’t effect me why should I worry…well, I’m worried.

Because of my worry I have become the aging, white-bearded, balding hippie, embracing those things I should have embraced fifty years ago, although I still toke on cigars rather than weed and find the conservative drug of choice, beer, and Jack Daniels, more palatable…beer and Jack Daniels separately, not mixed. Certain libations transcend social and political orientations.

I had flirted with the left but hadn’t gone ape-shit liberal until my Autumn years when I found Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin more in line with my musical and political taste than Florida-Georgia Line. Country?  That ain’t country.

It always begins with the devil’s music…even if it was from the Sixties.  Having ignored it in my youth it was as if I had discovered Coronado’s Seven Cities of Gold.  First, it’s Rock-n-Roll and before you know it, sex and drugs along with a good dose of liberalism are rearing their radical heads.

I’m a little long of tooth for “free love” and “psychedelics” but my middle of the road liberalism seemed to fit better with what I believe are the ills facing our world; global climate change, hunger, lack of clean water, wage inequality, unchecked capitalism, and a government that reminds me more of a Russian oligarchy.  Funny…my change coincided with the birth of grand children.

My thoughts ramble, I am astounded.  “Something’s happin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Those people I considered liberal in my childhood and my early adulthood have become the status quo of today, the conservative adults wondering what has happened to the youth of today…or their aging hippie teacher.

This from the former blue jean, mini-skirted, halter topped or John Travolta “catch me, f@#$ me” leisure suited crowd, now nattily dressed in their dark blue suits and red ties. They are now the conservatives resisting social and political change, many to the point of embracing any conspiracy related to the evils hiding under their beds.

My “outlaw”, dope-smoking brother even became the paragon of the conservative status quo, forgoing Seventies drug use and briefly flirting with Tea Party politics.  Well, he is still a tee shirt, cargo pants kind of guy.  At least he wears his UNC cap “fore and aft.”  I believe it might have something to do with marriage and business ownership.  Settling down?

My characterization is unfair, my brother is the epitome of the too-often quoted, “social liberal, fiscal conservative.” He helped start and continues to support a food kitchen and other social programs.

The give away is his musical tastes.  They are “neo-hippie” and “Americana”…kind of like mine. He doesn’t think modern country is country either.  It seems his square pegs won’t fit in my round holes…maybe I should take a look at my own square pegs.

Truth?  We don’t stray far from each other’s political or social beliefs. We enjoy many of the same things, and share a live and let live attitude.  I just find it necessary to give grief to my younger brother.

What amazes…and concerns me are the protests popping up.  I should say the types of protests.  Stanchly conservative, dare I say right-wing reactionaries…protestors dressed in camo and battle gear, sporting assault-style weapons have replaced hippies putting flowers down the barrel of rifles.  What?

Make Love, not War does not seem to be their mantra. I think the lyrics from Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, might fit them better.“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view.  While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.”  It seems they want to keep the masses in view…and under their thumb.Based on Isaiah, I like the Hendrix version the best.

It was just a few years, months ago, the same folk were shaming “liberal” teachers for walking out of their classes for more pay and smaller class sizes, global climate change idiots led by a sixteen year old, railing against Black Lives Matter, and cheering when Native Americans were arrested or water blasted for protesting an oil pipeline through their native lands. Oil pipe…peace pipe…hum…water pipe.

The hippie legions from fifty years ago are either rolling in their graves or wondering what kind of bad shit was in those edibles or ‘srooms.

“What a field day for the heat.  A thousand people in the street.  Singing songs and a carryin’ signs.  Mostly say, “hooray for our side.” 

It’s time we stopped.  Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

Stephen Stills was quoted saying, “It (For What it’s Worth) turned out to be indicative of what was about to happen.” And I would add, “Continues to happen.” The only changes are the participants and the battlefields they argue over.

“There’s battle lines being drawn and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”

***

Added note:  I don’t want to be  accused of viewing history through rose colored granny glasses.  Not all left led protest were peaceful and the violence was not necessarily prompted by the minions of the status quo.  At least the police didn’t face protestors with AR-15s.

I decided to include All Along the Watchtower….

YouTube.  Jimi Hendrix live in Munster, 1/14/69

Buffalo Springfield, YouTube Vid of them at the Hollywood Palace in 1967.

The Flower Power photograph is by Bernie Boston, taken during “March on The Pentagon”, 21 October 1967.

Featured image is of protesters of the Michagin shelter in place order.

 

The More Things Change…

 

…the more they remain the same.

Doing a little light reading…taking a little look-see at the Bubonic Plague.  Wow…the greatest of all pandemics.

I’m bored.  The better half is watching the Hallmark Channel which is like the greatest all-time worse things to do during a self-quarantine due to our most recent pandemic.  Oh, it’s baseball season…but it’s not.  At least it is the Hallmark Mystery Channel.

As I did my light reading, I could not help but notice similarities in our reaction to our present pandemic, Corvid-19, and the way our fourteenth-century forefathers reacted.  There may be something to this “history repeating itself.”

What concerns me is that despite some seven hundred years of information and knowledge-gathering, we do not seem to be any better prepared to deal with it scientifically than we were then.

Short history lesson.  The Black Death probably came from Central or East Asia along what was known as the Silk Road.  Traders transported their goods to major European cities but also carried stowaways in the form of rats.  These rats carried other stowaways, fleas.  The fleas carried a bacterium, Yersinia Pestis.  The fleas require a live host, the rats, and when the rats died, the fleas carrying Y Pestis simply jumped to the next closest host…another rat or a person.  Y Pestis carrying rats caused the Bubonic Plague.

During the Middle Ages, even the late Middle Ages, hygiene was…not…very…hygienic.  It wasn’t as bad as it has been portrayed but the flea carrying rats found a fertile environment to procreate in and a somewhat overcrowded population in cities chock full of hosts.  In other words, soap and water would have helped during these times as would a goodly amount of D’con had it been available or the invention of a better rat trap.

“Healers,” monarchs, and religious leaders never connected the plague with rats, fleas, and Y Pestis.  I kinda want to give them a pass.  They hadn’t developed past barbers overseeing bleedings, leeches to help keep the four humors of the body in balance and the burning of incense and sulfur…as well as rosemary, amber, musk, and fragrant flowers.  When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs…

What is our excuse?  Despite advanced warning, people in high places chose to ignore the danger in hopes it would go away with the April warmth and humidity…It’s April 21 and it is still here.

I ask the question because it seems we would rather latch on to any conspiracy theory rather than science.  We would rather believe the opinion of a college dropout trying to sell advertisements on YouTube or on certain “news” channels or an Indian with a ‘piled high and deep’ degree in military science rather than epidemiologists with an MD following their names.  I digress.

Maybe we need a Jew to sacrifice to the purifying flames of a good ole witch burnin’.  Maybe we can use vestal virgins to keep the fires going.  We seem to be stoking the fires of disharmony, willing to burn our country to the ground instead of pulling together, not that our European forefathers were any better…but then we do benefit from scientific knowledge over superstition.  Don’t we?

Consider this, many Europeans at the time believed the supernatural, earthquakes and conspiracies were to blame.  God’s wrath, bad air released by earthquakes and the Jews, friars, witches, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, and Romani were to blame.  Scapegoats, we must have scapegoats! 

Like those going before us, a large group believes, “It couldn’t just be a virus?”  There must be some ulterior motive behind it, even though the science says otherwise.  At least our forefathers knew nothing of viruses or bacteria.

One widely-held Middle Ages’ conspiracy theory was that the Jews were poisoning the water supplies.  Some old Jewish guy was seen feeding cracked grain to the ducks probably.  Christians had good reason to wonder, I guess.  Jews didn’t come down with the black, oozing lymph nodes as often as Christian Europeans, but no one considered Jews bathed more often and kept their homes clean and free of rats.  Hygiene, simple hygiene.

There is a parallel right there.  Have you seen the news shows and YouTube videos teaching us how we should wash our hands?  Seems after seven hundred years we would have progressed farther.

Another point to ponder, Jews lived separately from Christians in a type of “mandatory” self-quarantine before the Black Death hit and had a higher survival rate as an added result.  The Christian response was to burn them out…homes and entire towns.  They would have done better to have burned their own towns, killing the fleas and the rats that carried them.  That would have slowed down the plague more than burning a witch or a Jewish town or two.

Our response to stay home orders or quarantine?  Marching men, blocking traffic with automatic weapons.  Gonna shoot that bad, boy virus?  No, but you can’t force me to tempt fate…or the health of my family and friends.  Much love to the healthcare worker who stared some of them down.

At least we are not burning Jewish towns but violence against Asians has risen.  Chinese bioweapons are poisoning our air supply with 5G carrier waves after all or is it Bill Gates?  When he squints behind those hornrims, he looks a bit Chinese.  Scapegoats, we must have scapegoats with a conspiracy theory or two…just like my European forefathers.

An interesting fact during the Black Death.  The poor had a much lower incidence of survival.  They were already compromised.  Broken down by poorer diets and a harsher lifestyle, the serfs were the first to die from God’s wrath and went to their maker in much higher numbers.

Is there a parallel there?  I’m sure if I looked at the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919, I would see the same thing.  The poor dying in greater percentages.  I can see men sitting in their tall office buildings shrugging their shoulders and nodding in approval of “survival of the fittest” while their workers died, or men in business suits saying sacrificing our family members for the good of the economy is an honor.

During the Corvid-19 scare, we are seeing it again.  Compromised groups, groups without access to healthcare, people we call “essential workers” are being sacrificed for the greater good of our economy.  We are seeing high numbers infected by racial profile and interestingly, among grocery workers.  Along with them are the aged and those with underlying issues.  People we should be protecting instead of shrugging off as simply a statistic of “selective” Darwinism.

The response of some, “Well it’s not Corvid-19 killing these people, it’s their underlying conditions.”  Really?  Maybe you should go bleed yourself…a gallon should end the problem.

Every pandemic has caused major social upheaval.  Corvid -19 will be no different.  The Black Death led to the rise of towns and the middle class, the collapse of feudalism, the Reformation, just to name a few historical changes.  Maybe you should read about the changes caused by the Black Death to get an idea of what might be ahead for us.   Don’t I’ll probably write about it eventually.

The first thing you should keep in mind, the Black Death only peaked in the mid-1300s, it didn’t go away.  It came back again and again.  Corvid-19 will spike again if we choose superstition over science.

***

Superstition is not the best word, but I don’t know what might be.  We have a cult that believes nothing put forth by our scientists, medical doctors or news reporters and that a robust stock market somehow helps us all.

The picture of the rat…I personally have nothing against four-legged rats as long as they stay in the wild.  I don’t like the two-legged version anywhere.

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0KTel1ZOkEs6ionAjK8k5jwlt8q9QKXKdsazPkJQYrwJD2ZPhwsMtCpZs

 

Textile Strikes, Labor Unions, and Ella May Wiggins-History Repeated

 

During research for a novel I hope to write, I ran across the novel, The Last Ballad, written by Wiley Cash.  Cash’s novel is a fictionalized glimpse into the life and final months of union organizer and balladeer, Ella May Wiggins.  The story was inspired by actual events that hit a little too close to home.  Cash paints a historical picture that is both historically accurate and vivid, yet is as dark as the interiors of the textile mills he writes about and the lives of the people forced to work in them.  It’s a novel I wish I could have written.

Image result for ella may wiggins

Wiggins, a spinner at Bessemer City’s American Textile Mill #2 with a history of bad choices for many right reasons and some not so right, was shot and killed in 1929 during labor unrest leading up to the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, April 1,1929 and ending in the collapse of the strike after Wiggins’s death in September of the same year.

It was the end of the period called “The Roaring Twenties” which for the textile workers and farmers of the South, were anything but roaring.  While Wiggins did not live to see the great Wall Street crash, times were already hard for those who toiled in textiles, many who had just earlier been left destitute from falling farm prices.  As my grandmother often stated, “We lived so hard we didn’t notice the Great Depression.”

For anyone with empathy, the book is a tough read.  It is painful on many levels, not just Wiggins’s death.  It is disturbing because I see a certain parallel with “history repeating itself.”

I grew up a “hill milly”.  My youth was tied both to the fields of corn and beans of my grandparents and to the textile mills of my parents. By the time I cleaned the cow manure off my boots and traded square bales of hay for the lint, heat, and noise of the Springs Mills’ White Plant in Fort Mill, South Carolina, conditions, pay, and hours had markedly improved from Ella May’s day.  Improved, but still some of the hardest physical labor I ever did under some of the most taxing physical conditions.

On my first day, I was two months past my fourteenth birthday.  I was summer labor, a spare hand, working a six until two shift at whatever hell my second hand decided.   Doffing cloth, filling batteries, taking up quill and skinning them were my primary chores.  I must have done okay, I was invited to continue, working weekends during the school year.

The early shift allowed enough daylight in the evening to pull four additional hours hoeing corn, picking beans or tossing square bales onto the bed of an old flatbed for two dollars a day.  I was bone-weary at the end of the day and slept the sleep of the exhaustedly pure of heart, but in my immature brain, I was rich.

A dollar sixty-five an hour, time and a half for overtime over forty hours, plus the six dollars a week I got for tossing hay.  $93.80 a week before taxes for seventy-two hours counting four overtime hours…all hard work.  That was in 1964 and I wasn’t as rich as I thought.  My parents took half my take-home pay for room and board and I was forced to save half of my half for the college days looming in the near future.

My week’s take came out to about fifteen dollars a week in my pocket…more than what Ella May made for seventy-two hours in 1929.  Six days a week, twelve hours a day for $9.00 a week in conditions you can’t believe unless you lived it. $9.00 to house, feed and clothe herself and her five living children.  She had lost two children in early childhood who developed rickets due to malnutrition.  She was pregnant at the time of her death.

Image result for springs cotton mills fort mill sc

South Carolina has never been receptive to unions…the South has never been receptive to unions.  As of 2017, only 2.6 percent of the Southern workforce was unionized. During Ella May Wiggins’s day, unions had only just begun to move south and were met with a solid, often violent, effort to keep them out.

On my first day at Springs, a cousin, Charlie Wilson, took me aside and yelled his whisper above the din of eleven hundred looms, “Never mention the word union if you want to keep your job.”  I’m not sure I had heard of the word at the time but never mentioned it even though many days I doubted I really “wanted to keep my job.”

Despite the mind-numbing sound and physical labor, I was spoiled and didn’t know it until I went to work for another cotton mill during my college days.  Springs Mills was a Cadillac of cotton mills.  Well lit, it was reasonably modern and technologically advanced, cleaner than most, with a family atmosphere.

The two mills I worked at in Newberry, SC, during my college years were everything Springs wasn’t including an “every man for himself” atmosphere.  Dimly lit, the old Draper looms were contrary and dangerous, the closed painted over windows a reminder of what was just on the other side…bright sunshine and clean air as opposed to the oppressive, lint filled atmosphere and heat inside.

As I lived through a week that saw a major drop in the stock market and a toilet paper panic, I am somberly amused at some of the similarities that exist today as in those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Conservatives attempting to hold the line, liberals clamoring for change.  Name-calling, finger-pointing and unfortunately threats to our democratic system if not our very person.

I hope most threats are coming from internet trolls with nothing to do as we “hunker down”, self-isolating ourselves from the coronavirus, worrying about where our next toilet paper score might occur.  We can’t even agree if this disease is a health threat or simply the flu blown up by a liberal media controlled by communists and George Soros.  I digress with tongue in cheek.

The reason for the Loray strike were workers protesting for better working conditions, a forty-hour workweek, a minimum $20 weekly wage, union recognition, and the abolition of the stretch-out system, a system that doubled worker’s labor but reduced their wages as textiles fell on hard times after The Great War and the drying up of government contracts.

An estimated 1,000 strikers at Loray Mills, Gastonia, 1929. -- Millican Pictorial History Museum

The numbers and issues may be different, our responses have been eerily similar.  It would be during the middle of the Great Depression before minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek and child labor, along with the Social Security safety net, would finally be addressed…all maligned at the time as at best socialism, at worse communism, both a threat to American capitalism and the owners it made rich.

In 1929, company men labeled any check to unlimited capitalism as Marxist, socialist or communist, and yes there were more than a few of them around. Ella May’s National Textile Workers Union certainly had communist ties, not that Ella May and her fellow workers knew what a communist was.  She was simply seeking a better life for her children and herself.

I see the same labels raised when we debate increasing the minimum wage, health care, safety nets or educational opportunities.  Labeling has become quite acute with both our political parties battling to pass a coronavirus relief bill.

Union enrollment is on the decline while finger-pointing increases.  There is no middle ground.  Signs of the time…or as my Evangelical friends shout, “Signs of the Apocalypse.  The time is nigh.”

I wonder if we are nearing a tipping point when the national guard, new wave strikebreakers, and the police force will be employed to evict and expel people whose opinions simply differ.  Couldn’t happen, could it?  Yet in 1929 it did, and the violence would continue well into the Thirties.

Violence spurred by unchecked capitalism, fears of communism and being forced to work side by side with those of a different race.  All supported by a sympathetic conservative media, and government “for and by” the “Captains of Industries.”

On April 1, 1929, eighteen hundred workers walked off the job at Loray in Gastonia, mostly women, some marching with babes in arms.  Management evicted them from company housing, throwing their meager possessions into the street.  One striker was killed, many beaten.

The North Carolina National Guard was called out on the third of April, violence erupted sporadically over the next several months.  The police chief was killed, strikers and company men shot or beaten, and in September, a truck carrying twenty-two strikers was chased down and shot up.  The pregnant organizer and singer of ballads, Ella May Wiggins, was killed, shot through her chest.  Her children sent to an orphanage until their eighteenth birthdays.

Image result for ella may wiggins

A general wave of vigilantism washed across the countryside, company men arriving in the middle of the night, forcing strike participants out of the county in exile.  These were their neighbors, people they knew by name, people they might have worked with just a few weeks before.  People threatened with bodily harm if they returned.

The struggle continues today just not in US textiles.  Textiles left the South for climates more receptive to low pay and long hours.  There are a few specialty mills around but we simply can’t compete.   Our standard of living requires we have a higher level of poverty than places like China, India, and Pakistan.   Hopefully a higher level of empathy for our workers…but I am unsure.

***

I recommend The Last Ballad.  Again, I warn you, it is a painful history brought to life by Wiley Cash.  It is a history I was unfamiliar with even though I possess a history degree and lived within an hour of Gastonia and the Loray Mill site.  We Southerners have a tendency to overlook or twist some of our more unsavory histories.  This one seems to have been ignored.

The book may be purchased on Amazon or if you have a library card, downloaded to a Kindle or computer with a Kindle App for free.  Yes, I’m cheap.  https://www.amazon.com/Last-Ballad-Novel-Wiley-Cash/dp/0062313118

Image result for The Last Ballad

Don Miller is a retired educator and coach.  He writes on various topics and his author’s page may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Images

Featured Image:  A member of the NC National Guard forcing two female strikers back. https://wilsoncountylocalhistorylibrary.wordpress.com/tag/ella-may-wiggins/

The first image is of Ella May (spelled Mae on her grave marker) Wiggins just before her death, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article175129556.html

The second image is of a young girl tending spinning frames in the early 1900s  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83457399315355531/

The third image is of Loray Mill strikers who walked out on April 1, 1929.

The fourth image is of the truck that carried Ella May Wiggins to her death.  https://www.shelbystar.com/news/20190405/1929-loray-mill-strike-gastonia-violence-makes-waves

 

I Always Wonder….

There is an abandoned house I walk past every morning when I force myself out to walk or run.  Yeah, I’m trying to jog a bit these days.  Slow and easy…slow and not so easy.  Try not to have a second heart attack or pull a muscle.

At a curve of the road below what has become my ‘hill from hell’, an old home sits forlornly surrounded by broom straw, English ivy, hemlock, and juvenal river birch.  It has sat empty for the past thirty years.  I vaguely remember people living there a long time ago.  They were solitary people who looked at you side-eyed when you drove by.  They were here today gone tomorrow folks it seems.

I stood, stretching after a five-minute warm-up.  Trying to steel myself for the quarter-mile trek up the hill, I paused and took a picture as I paused.

Have I said that I like old structures?  I like wandering through them looking at how they were built.  I like wondering about who lived there.  I hate to see old houses abandoned into ruin.

Once, a lifetime ago, I dared to investigate.  I’m not built for creeping or sneaking a look through windows.   Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me.  Don’t fear, I’m not a Peeping Tom.  I knew the place was empty.  I just wondered why they had left in such a hurry.  Looking through windows gave me no clue, only more questions.

Much of the furniture was still in place as if the people who lived there just went off to work or out for dinner, locked the door behind them, and never came back.  A plush easy chair and matching settee but no TV.  No lightened spaces on the walls where paintings or pictures might have hung.  I wonder why furniture and kitchen implements were left behind?   Why did the previous tenants skedaddle leaving so much behind?

There had been people there recently.  A stack of pyramided beer cans attested to their visitation.  Uninvited visitors disturbing the mice, taking advantage of an empty house.  Young people looking for a place to hang out but twenty or thirty years later it’s not a place I would want to spend any kind of “quality” time.

As I took the picture I saw only remnants of Venetian blinds and shredded curtains hanging in the windows.  Windowpanes have been knocked out and I imagine the furniture is covered in black mold or worse.  Still, I wonder…but not enough to go check.  It is a shame and a bit heartbreaking.

The house sits in a steep-sided ‘holler’ split by the road I walk. It is at the base of ‘The Hill From Hell.’  I’ve officially named it.  It rises two hundred feet over two-tenths of a mile.  There was a time when I ran it…that time has run out.

A rocky, shallow stream runs under the road and in front of the house with juvenal river birch taking over between the stream and porch.  Despite its shallowness, the stream runs quite fast.  I wonder why the original owners decided to put their home in a hole that gets very little sunlight.  Access to the water I wonder?

The original house was a sturdy, shed-roofed affair with a narrow screened in front porch.  What appears to be a rebuilt chimney dominates one side.  It looks too new…despite having been there for at least thirty years.  I wonder what the original chimney looked like.  Was it rock like mine, made from stones found in the area?  Was it added as an afterthought during summer after a long, cold winter?

A low and long addition was built on the opposite side.  It matches the original building like a scary horror movie and has not held up well to being left empty.  Loneliness destroys us all.

The screens on the porch are shredded and the tar paper and asphalt shingles have not held up as well as the metal sheets on the original.  The roof reminds me of an old swayback plow horse.

I wonder how many generations lived there, how they survived, what they did for a living.  What were their dreams?  I wonder how they lived and loved, what they ate, what games they played.  Were their lives as hard as my imagination leads me to believe.

Spring is three weeks away and the daffodils are showing themselves near the ditch that separates the house site from the road.  They have pushed up through a stand of blue-purple blossomed periwinkle.

Soon they will be spent and replaced by moon vine in mid-summer and the sickly, sweet smell of blossoming kudzu in the fall.    If enough sunlight can reach the yard, wildflowers will bloom in the late summer.  I wonder if someone once tended to their flowers long, long ago.

Each summer kudzu above the old house creeps closer and closer.  I wonder if it will eventually cover the old house or if someone will come along and knock the house down putting it out of its misery.  Either way, it will disappear from sight…disappear from history leaving no trace of itself or the people who lived there.  I wonder.

***

Don Miller is a retired teacher and coach who writes on various subjects, in both fiction and non-fiction.  Visit his author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM.

The image is of the lonesome old house taken with my phone.

Like A Bowl of Gumbo….

 

I was triggered but I was proud of myself.  I said my peace and disengaged.  I recognized that anything I might say would make no difference.  I think most arguments these days are best left…unargued.  There was an upside, my “triggering” sent me down a pig trail to Alice’s rabbit hole.  I found the Mad Hatter, but he wasn’t drinking tea, he was offering me a bowl of gumbo and an Abita instead.

The tiff was over a “Fun Fact” I had posted about Black History Month.  I share “Daily Doses” of witticisms or “Fun Facts” about the world we live in.  Anything to cut the greasy derision abounding today.  Since we celebrate Black History Month in February, I decided to avail myself of the subject although I am sure there will be fun facts about Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras thrown in for good measure.

A comment made about my “Fun Fact” ruffled my feathers.  I felt the response was inappropriate and told the responder so.  He didn’t take it well…or maybe I didn’t take it well.  I opted to say my peace and disengage.  Instead, I punched up a playlist that included Jimmy Buffett’s “I Will Play for Gumbo.”  One of the choruses goes….

“A piece of French bread

With which to wipe my bowl,

Good for the body.

Good for the soul.

It’s a little like religion

And a lot like sex.

You should never know

When you’re gonna get it next.

At midnight in the quarter or noon in Thibodeaux

I will play for gumbo

Yes, I will play for gumbo.”

 

It’s a fun song and it had me seat dancing in my recliner, forgetting about my triggered self.  I might have had a Pavlovian response to boot.  The ditty made me think about diversity…also a good subject for Black History Month.  I know of no other bowls of goodness that are more diverse in ingredients, origin…and full of tasty joy.  If I had to come up with the last meal it would probably include gumbo with a side of shrimp and grits.

The word gumbo derives from West Africa, ki ngombo or quingombo, from the Niger-Congo language spoken by many of the West African slaves who survived the Middle Passage and were forced to settle and perform back-breaking labor.  The words mean okra, a plant the slaves brought with them.

Gumbo can be served without okra but why would one want it without okra?  It was also Africans who introduced serving okra with rice, and rice is generally served with gumbo.

Sometime later, it was the Louisiana French, some who came by way of Canada, who probably shortened the African words to gumbo.

The Choctaw, who gave the dish filé, ground sassafras leaves, called the tasty dish, kombo.

The dish is most closely associated with Nawlins, Loo-see-Anna but can be found in bowls across the United States.

Like gumbo, New Orleans is about as diverse as one place can be.  The Spanish conquistadores wrestled the area from the Natives in the middle 1760s while fighting off the French before secretly giving it to Napoleon’s France in 1800.  The area was heavily explored and settled by both the French and Spanish lending to the diversity.  Napoleon, feeling a money pinch from his many wars, sold New Orleans and a bunch more to the United States in 1803.  All the while, African slaves and Native Americans added to the diversity whether they wanted to or not.

Gumbo varies according to the Cajun style or Creole style…or your style.  All make use of a dark roux (French, although darker than most French styles), some use okra (African) to thicken, others use filé powder, (Choctaw).  Still, others use both.  Seafood or chicken, both or none, can be combined with Andouille sausage (French but with a heavy German influence).  Gumbo’s first cousins, Jambalaya and red beans and rice, are probably Spanish introductions and akin to the Spanish rice dish, paella, so I must believe there are Spanish influences in gumbo too.

What I like about gumbo, besides its taste, is its diversity.  It is made with diverse ingredients that vary, of course, depending on who’s making it.  It can be made with table scraps, shrimp, sausage, chicken or alligator, I guess.

Gumbo in a wide mouth bowl crosses lines of class, rich or poor.  It crosses race and ethnicity and probably religion too.  Louisiana cooks call the combination of celery, bell pepper and onion the “Holy Trinity” after all.  As tasty as it is, I’m sure there might be a bit of West African Voodoo involved.  Gumbo is truly a melding of ingredients, tastes, and people.

Gumbo is both labor and love intensive.  You just can’t put it all together and then walk away.  There is much stirring before you can cut the temperature down to low and let those flavors get to know each other.  People should cut the temperature down and get to know each other too.

Sometimes I wonder if it is the sweat off the chief’s brow that adds to the spice as much as that “Loo-see-Anna” hot sauce…Its gotta be love that makes it so tasty.

“Maybe it’s the sausage or those pretty pink shrimp

Or that popcorn rice that makes me blow up like a blimp.

Maybe it’s that voodoo from Marie Leveaux,

But I will play for gumbo

Yeah, I will play for gumbo

The sauce boss does his cookin’ on the stage,

Stirrin’ and a singing for his nightly wage.

Sweating and frettin’ from his head to his toe,

Playin’ and swayin’ with the gumbo

Prayin’ and buffetin’ with the gumbo.”

 

Lyrics courtesy of AZlyrics.com, Jimmy Buffett, I Will Play For Gumbo, written and performed by Jimmy Buffett.  From the 1999 album Beach House on the Moon.  Video courtesy of YouTube

Featured Image of New Orleans Creole Gumbo from Big Oven https://www.bigoven.com/recipe/new-orleans-creole-gumbo/170608

My favorite Gumbo Recipe from Emeril Lagasse, Gumbo Ya-Ya https://parade.com/27003/emerillagasse/gumbo-ya-ya/

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Viennas, Nabs, and Cherry-Lemon Sundrops

 

Or as is said ’round heah, Vienners…a somewhat heavy accent mark on the “ners”.  “Vi-en-NERS”.  Some of us end words with “er” that don’t require it, like yeller instead of yellow.

If you are North American and happen to find yourself in Germany with an intense hankering for a Vienna sausage…and, if you can actually get a vendor to understand your Southern accent, you’re probably not going to get what you are expecting; a “baker’s” half dozen of two-inch or so sausages in a jelly-like substance, all contained in a small can with a pull tab.  I remember when you had to us a “key“ to open the top of the can by inserting it into a metal band you twisted off.  Lawd have mercy if the little band twisted or broke, you might starve to death.

Image result for sardine can key"

 

Image result for vienna sausages in jelly"

What you’re going to get in Germany is a long, slender sausage that we Nordamerikanisch would call a skinny hot dog wiener.  They are called Wiener Würstchen in the Germanic states.

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I’m sure, by now many who haven’t clicked to a more interesting post are wondering, “What the hell is he babblin’ about.“  A better question might be “Why is he talkin’ about whatever the hell he is babblin’ bout?“  I’m getting there.

Recently, I handed a new friend twenty dollars to tide him over until his “gubmint” check arrived.  We had become friends that very day but that’s another story.  After thanking me he pointed out, “This’ll buy a lot of  Vienners at the Dollar Store.”

I commented, “And some soda crackers, too.”

As I drove home, I thought, “or buy a lot of Spam…or Potted Meat…or Deviled Ham…which might just be disguised potted meat.”  Nope, I just researched potted meat and wish I hadn’t.  Potted meat is not Deviled Ham.

While I haven’t eaten any of the above in decades, they do hold a warm spot in my heart and as my new friend pointed out, “They’ll hep keep the wolves away.”  I’m also sure they contributed to my 2006 heart attack because as a child I ate a great deal of the highly salted and fatted proteins, what I call “mystery meat”  as in it is a mystery as to what meat parts were used to make it.  I suggest you not read the ingredients if you actually like them.  Ignorance is bliss.

During the summer of my twelfth (12) year, I went to work in the fields alongside my cousins and an uncle.  It’s not like I hadn’t been working in the fields before, this work paid money…mullah…greenbacks…two dollars a day, ten dollars for five early thirty to dark thirty days per week.  Cash money every Friday evening.  Ten brand new Silver Certificates.  There was a caveat.  Two bucks a day plus midday meal.

Two bucks a day plus midday meal to load and haul hay, hoe and pull corn, clean out animal stalls and load their leavings into a manure spreader to…what else…spread manure.  Saturdays, I worked alongside another set of cousins on another uncle’s chicken farm.  The two farms were nothing alike except shoveling poop stinks no matter what animal it comes from and two dollars a day ain’t enough even with the midday meal.   Especially when the midday meal usually consisted of Vienna Sausage or Deviled Ham, soda crackers and a MoonPie or pack of nabs…all washed down from a jug of warm water.  Yummy.

Nabs?  For the uninitiated, nabs is Southern lingo for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) which first produced small sandwich crackers usually filled with cheese or peanut butter.  Here in the South, we ate Lance’s, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Tom’s from Columbus, Georgia, but we still called them nabs.

Tom’s was eventually absorbed by Lance’s but still retains its name and is better known for its peanuts, while Lance is better known for its nabs.  Walk into any Southern mercantile and ask for a pack of nabs and a dope, they know exactly what you want.  You do have to provide which one of the gazillion choices you desire.1

Image result for nabs crackers"

That leads me down another rabbit trail.  Tom’s peanuts and Pepsi Cola.  In the afternoons my uncle would head out to the closest mercantile and bring back a Pepsi Cola, still called a “dope” in my neck of the woods, and a pack of Tom’s peanuts.   Any soft drink was called dope because the original Coca-Cola formula contained cocaine.  Back in the day, Southern soda shops were referred to as “hop joints” and Coke delivery trucks as “dope wagons.”2

For some reason, Tom’s peanuts go perfectly with Pepsi Cola.  I should have said goes perfectly IN a Pepsi Cola.  We’d pour our little bag of peanuts into the Pepsi Cola bottle and consume with gusto.  You could put them in any soft drink, but my choice was Pepsi.  A needed jolt of sugar for energy to get you to dark thirty and the salt from the peanuts helped to replenish what your body had lost as you tried not to die from heat castration 3 in a Southern hayfield.  I don’t know if it contained cocaine but it did seem to refresh you.

Image result for peanuts in pepsi bottle"

Another Southern staple was the MoonPie.  MoonPie?  I’ve never been enamored by the MoonPie, two huge graham cracker cookies with a marshmallow filling dipped in chocolate…originally.  You can get a MoonPie in many flavors now…banana, double yuk.  Not being enamored doesn’t mean I haven’t consumed a gracious plenty of them.  You eat what you have and what you can afford.

The MoonPie is truly a Southern creation, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1907 at a local bakery.  As the story goes, visiting coal miners asked the owner to create a “man-sized” cookie that could serve as a “workingman’s lunch”.  When asked how big, the miner replied, “As big as the moon.”  We know how it got its name but not how MoonPie became associated with RC Cola, but it seems one cannot be consumed without the other.

Image result for moonpie and rc cola"

How RC or Royal Crown Cola, another Southern creation born in Columbus, Georgia became associated with MoonPie is a depression-era story that has been lost in the mists of time.  For a nickel, each, Southern laborers, textile workers or Kentucky coal miners could afford a filling lunch for a dime.  “An RC and a MoonPie” became a part of Southern culture with no help from advertising moguls.4

Flirting with Southern blasphemy, I said earlier I was never enamored with the MoonPie.  Nothing sacrilegious, I don’t like marshmallows and if I wasn’t drinking Pepsi, I might have a Cheerwine rather than an RC.  Cheerwine…I haven’t had one in years.  Honestly, unless Jack Daniels is in the glass I haven’t had any soft drink in years.

Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored cola produced in Salisbury, North Carolina since 1917.  Sweetened with cane syrup and containing a higher percentage of carbonation, a culture of its own sprang up.  Cheerwine cream-filled Krispy Creme donuts, Cheerwine flavored ice cream, Cheerwine pickles, the base for a barbeque sauce, and my favorite, a cherry, lemon, Sun Drop cola made with Cheerwine. 5

Sun Drop? You don’t know about Sun Drop? A citrus-flavored soda made in Missouri which is almost Southern.

Image result for cheerwine old fashioned"

Memories of sitting in the shade of huge water oaks next to the river, the humidity, and heat finding its way into the shade.  Slappin’ to keep the mosquitos from carryin’ you off before you finished your lunch.  At least the Vienna Sausages were warm and the gelatinous gunk has turned into an oily liquid that could be shaken off.  Ooh, I just remembered what the hands holding the sausage looked like.  Well, a bit of dirt or manure never hurt anyone…”ain’t hurt nobody.”

A twelve-year-old doing his first grown-up job, laughing with his cousins, listening to his uncle sing old-timey hymns just before pinning back the twelve-year old’s ears with a language he had never heard before because of something stupid he had done.  Learning lessons needing to be learned.

Learning to drive a tractor and then the big ole flatbed.  Learning you never pick up a bale of hay on the river bottoms without flipping it first.  “How did that moccasin get under there?”

Staring at long rows of corn, hoe in hand.  That sinking feeling that you’re going to be there all day, a long day.

Watching the early morning mist from the river find its way into the bottomland and the sun creep above the water oaks.

The late afternoon thunderheads forming beyond those same water oaks, praying the would wash out the rest of the day…or at least cool it down.

Lessons and memories at the finest…even if the food wasn’t.

Acknowledgment:  I realize Vienna Sausage is not a Southern creation but like all cultures “We ain’t above stealin’ an idea.”

Footnotes:

1 “A Nab is a Nab is a Nab”  Southern Food Ways https://www.southernfoodways.org/a-nab-is-a-nab-is-a-nab/

2 “Is it true Coca-Cola once contained cocaine?”  The Straight Dope https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/384/is-it-true-coca-cola-once-contained-cocaine/

Heat Castration:  A non-recognized medical affliction caused by heat and humidity resulting in the “Sweating of one’s testicles off.”

4 “A Brief History of Tennessee Moon Pies” The Culture Trip https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/tennessee/articles/a-brief-history-of-tennessee-moon-pies/

5 “Ten things you didn’t know about Cheerwine” Wide Open Country https://www.wideopencountry.com/10-things-didnt-know-cheerwine/

The Illustrating images were all stolen from Pinterest as was the featured image.

Don Miller’s books, fiction, and non-fiction may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM