A Mess of Green Beans

 

It’s early morning and I’m bent over strong green plants, their bounty hanging from the underside of deep, green leaves.  I’m proud of my green beans.

It’s my second picking and I am getting more than from my first.  Despite the early hour, perspiration…nay sweat is trickling down my nose.  It’s not hard work, pickin’ beans, but my back is creaking and sweat is running into my underwear when I straighten it.

I’ll pick, wash and then snap before washing again.  I don’t know what I’ll do with these.  I’m still eating on my first pickin’…my first mess…from archaic French, messe, a portion of food.

It is a word I learned from my grandmother…and a process.  Nothing wasted, not even the pot liquor.  Beans are to be eaten until they are gone…or go rancid, the pot liquor sopped up with cornbread.  Just for clarification, these are not served al dente, they are cooked to death, the Southern way.

Mine are not likely to go rancid soon.  The biological process is aided by meat products and mine have none.  I’ve had to adjust my tastes since a heart attack a decade and a half ago.  No flavorful bacon grease or fried fatback will be added.  Just potatoes, onions, and a touch of salt and pepper.  They are not as flavorful as I remember my grandmother’s but my wife’s cornbread that is served with it is much better.  Sorry Nanny, your cornbread was too dry.

There was always a “mess” of beans on my grandmother’s stove.  Green beans early in the summer, butter beans later, and finally crowder peas in the early fall.  Whatever was canned found its way to the stovetop during the winter and spring.

I’ve tried to keep her schedule along with squash and tomatoes.  I wish I could figure out how to get my tomatoes to mature at the same time my beans do.  It would appear I’m still a few weeks away from my first tomato sandwich.  My garden is late this year due to April rains.

As I pick, I step back in time.  It is Monday as I write this.  A lifetime ago Mondays were days to finish gathering and prepping for Tuesdays which was, along with Thursdays, canning days at my countrified local school.  A cannery subsidized I’m sure by that Yankee ‘gubment’ in Washington or the nearby state one in Columbia. It was cheap, a penny a can, it had to be subsidized by someone.

It was a hot and humid place in the middle of hot and humid summers.  People came from all around to avail themselves.  It was a cheap way to preserve their summer bounty for the cold winter days ahead.  There was so much activity I am reminded of the story of the ant and the grasshopper.  No lazy grasshoppers here, just hard-working ants.

At my grandmothers there would be a flurry of activity on Mondays that would run well into the evening.  It would end with family from the hill above and the ‘holler’ below joining us.  Aunts, Uncles, and cousins sitting on the front porch snapping or shelling the last of the beans or prepping soup mix.  There was a good dose of gossip to go with the shelling.

A hushed voice asks, “Did you hear about so and so?”

Another query, “Didn’t she run off with….?”

A third with shaking head, “Oh my, you don’t say?  I know her momma is besides herself with worry.”

A fourth would ask, “Y’all want some sweet tea?”

The menfolk in fedoras and overalls sitting on one side of the L shaped porch, the women in feed sack dresses on the other.  I don’t really know what the menfolk discussed, what juicy details were talked about but their conversation probably revolved around work or what malady their car might be suffering.  Seemed everything revolved around scratching out a living or driving.

I remember falling asleep on the metal glider surrounded by the aromas of Prince Albert pipe tobacco and Camel or Lucky Strike unfiltered.  It was a different time and somehow, I always woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there.

The cannery was operated by the Leapharts, my school’s home economics, and agriculture teachers and their offsprings.  They operated it but everyone shared in the responsibilities.  Communal effort is always a farming community’s way.

Sterilized cans were filled with bounty before salt and water added.  Cans ran through some sort of magical machine that steamed and sealed the cans before tops were added and another magical machine sealed them.

The finished product placed in a water bath and allowed to cool until Thursday when we picked them up.  I remember being responsible for adding the water, a steamy job in the steamy, humidity filled days of summer but one suited for a boy my age.

I’ve tried canning with varying degrees of success…the glass Ball jars and rings.  I freeze a lot but for some reason, it does not quite taste the same.  I guess it could be the absence of bacon grease or fatback, but I don’t think so.  It might have been the people and the process.

I remember phone calls to my grandmother when I left for college and later for the real world.  Summertime calls were always accompanied by a canning tally and the weather forecast, “Well I did twenty-five cans of green beans, eighteen butter beans, and a dozen of soup mix.  It has sure been hot and dry.  I can’t remember the last time it rained.”   If she’d been fishing I got that report too.

When I came home to visit from the real world, I always returned with cans of love from her pantry.  A mess of green beans and potatoes with some raw onion and a wedge of cornbread.  Good eats…good memories.

My senses are a funny thing.  Smells trigger many memories…or sweat running down my nose or a song on my playlist.  There is something about the smell of tomatoes or green beans boiling in a pot.  I go back to those days when the humidity didn’t seem so bad when there was always a pot of beans on my grandmother’s stovetop and cornbread or biscuits close by.

****

Don Miller writes on various subjects and in various genres.  His author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3ISpnFiIcskj6u17soo9sN1uvFBdpA59noucO8m0LdgN9k0rhPlAxRa2g

The image is from Simple Home Preparedness at https://simplefamilypreparedness.com/home-canned-green-beans-in-3-easy-steps/

 

Where the Hoe Meets Rock

“What were you thinkin’?” I propped myself on my hoe and contemplated my folly of thirty years ago.  Who picks a former ravine to make into a garden.  When Highway 11 was originally built, “fill dirt” was used to fill up the creek cut ravine, the newly created creek banks stabilized by what else, kudzu. The scourge of the South…at least one of them.

Who tries to transform a broom straw laden, kudzu encroaching, rocky, and sandy wasteland into a garden?  Easy peasy, I did.  I had no choice if I was going to have a garden.  The flat area flanked on one side by a creek and kudzu and a highway and swamp on the other is the only place that receives the necessary eight hours of sunlight.

It has remained a folly despite the years I’ve spent amending with compost, wood chips, grass clippings, even ground up cardboard.  After thirty years I have about four inches of arable soil…and the rocks continue to do the dirty and multiply.

A whiney voice in my head asks, “Why do you do this to yourself.  The roads around your house are dotted with produce stands.  Walmart has corn for twenty-five cents an ear.”  I hear many voices but this one is irritating.  It is the voice that makes a yearly visit this time of the year.  Outloud, I tell it to shut up.

My grandmother is in my head too, she speaks in a voice I barely remember, “You better clean out those middles.  Look at that crabgrass.  What about the Johnson grass coming up?  While you’re at it do something about the kudzu across the fence.”

“Yes Nannie, I know…and soon the bastard wiregrass will begin its slow crawl.”  Common bermuda grass will grow on hot pavement.

My tiller is down and I’m waiting for a part.  It’s supposed to be here Monday but who knows, it may not get here, and I have the mechanical abilities of a brick.  I should probably use this hoe for something other than a leaning post.

A thick morning cloud rolled in and for a moment I think I will be saved.  There was no rain in the cloud despite the “rain” frogs in the swamp singing.  The crows in the distance cawed their good mornings as my hoe contacted one of the many rocks.  Bending over to pick it up I watched a drop of perspiration from my nose land next to my hand.  I was suddenly a small child sitting under a tree as the sun came out again.

My grandparents farmed lands too far from the river to benefit from the fertile silt deposited by seasonal floods.  Bottomlands were for the rich.  My grandparents weren’t rich…at least not monetarily.  They farmed on the lien until my granddaddy, Paw Paw, went to work in a textile mill.  Their soil was red with clay and filled with rocks too.  Their life was hard…much harder than mine, harder than the rocks they threw out of the field.

Even with steady money, my grandfather couldn’t stay out of the fields.  After eight hours in the mill, he would harness the plow horse and do his farm chores before grabbing a bit of sleep in the afternoon.  Sometimes he would head out in the early evenings too.

Corn was our staple, for both humans and animals.  Somehow the poor soil yielded the needed corn along with beans, squash, okra, and tomatoes.  There was nothing exotic in their garden not even a bell pepper.  They weren’t the exotic kind.  They were the survival kind.

I have a mental vision of a man of medium height with a sweat-stained fedora or cap.  Thinning gray hair cut short, a wide nose, and dark-framed glasses.  A man I can’t remember smiling except when he was in the fields.  A man who watched over my brother and I as we played in a sandy ditch with Tonka toys and green army men.  We didn’t know he was slowly dying from a melanoma found too late.  I was nine when he died.  He was fifty-eight or nine.

I’ve gotten into a rhythm.  Hoe the hard ground toward me for a minute or two before pushing the dirt back.  Bend over and pick up the uncovered rocks and throw the rocks toward the creek.  Rest on the hoe for a minute, stretch my back, and start over.  I don’t have the arm I used to have, or the creek has moved further away.  At least the rocks seem smaller than they used to.

Again my grandmother spoke in my head, “Get back to work, you can think and work at the same time.”  I wish I had asked more questions, “What did you think about Nannie?”

As a small child, most of my mornings were spent under a tree with a book in my hands.  Nannie’s rule was “read or come out and pick up a hoe.”  I developed my love for reading under a cedar tree or in a clump of privet.  I remember the sounds her hoe made when it contacted a rock.  I can’t remember her real voice but I remember that sound.

When I got older, I didn’t have a choice.  Hand-picking bugs, hand watering tomato plants, and hoeing middles.  Putting out chemical fertilizer that made my hands burn.  Later she would invest in a front tine tiller that most days beat me to death.

I guess there is something meditative about hoeing…except for this blister between my thumb and pointer finger that interrupts my rumination.  My grand parent’s hands were much tougher.  Hands like tanned shoe leather with thick calluses.  I remember my grandmother’s deeply lined and sun-baked face too.

I don’t know if I could call my grandmother pretty.  She had a broad face and wide-set eyes.  A thick, strong body built for farm work.  Her face was cut with deep crevasses but I remember when she laughed.  Her whole face lit up.  She didn’t laugh enough.

The frogs have grown silent as have the crows.  The voices in my head are still there and I try to shush them with the sound of the hoe.  It is humid and the weather liars say it will reach near-ninety today.  As I watched the sweat fly from my arms I realized the liars might be right.

My garden is late.  Mother Nature has been an unwholesome witch for most of March, April, and May.  If June follows suit, it will make a hard, left turn into hell.  Too cold, too wet, thunderstorms and hail in March, snow in April.  Near record rains in May and a tropical storm kickin’ up a ruckus in the Gulf and it is just the first week of June.

In between tropical systems, I finally planted tomato plants on May the fifteenth…exactly one month past our last frost date.  The two-foot-tall plants are standing proudly and filling out in their cages, but it will be a while before my first tomato sandwich.  I have one small tomato, it reminds me of a green marble.  My guess is summer will be as harsh as the spring, but hope does spring eternal.  Sure hope there is no Duke Mayonaise or white bread shortage.

It does not matter.  For what I spend in plants, seeds, and fertilizer I could buy from the produce stands cheaper.  It is not about the tomatoes, squash, and beans.

My gardening is about connections.  Connections to the past, connections to past generations.  I see my grandfather in his overalls leaning against his hoe, fedora on his head.  My grandmother is in her feed sack dress, perspiration dripping off her nose, a huge straw hat on her head.

It is about connections to the land, even lands filled with rocks.  I welcome the clank made the hoe making contact with a rock.  I smile when it happens.

Don Miller’s author’s page  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3YVEkI2WW4ZAZbqiYKWyhVQdkGDO6zt6QzExlP8lFCl6FVitonudcbAPQ

The image used is  a watercolor, “Hoeing Turnips”, by Sir George Clausen http://www.artnet.com/artists/sir-george-clausen/hoeing-turnips-m85xrTGVVoEQTDt3k_TMhg2

 

Honeysuckle Spring

Honeysuckle Spring

This is my favorite time of the year…If Mother Nature takes her meds and decides it is going to be a mild spring or a hot spring.  We seem to be yoyoing just a bit.  I can take either just not both during the same week…or within the same twenty-four-hour period.

We may have just finished “blackberry winter” with morning temps dipping into the thirties, but I’m not sure…we’ve been fooled before and the forecast is for cooler temps after this weekend’s dose of summer.

This is the time of year between tree pollen season when my hemlock trees coat everything with a fine, yellow-green powder that hardens like a coating of concrete after a heavy dew and the peak of mosquito and stinging insect season.  I say the peak of mosquito season because mosquito season in my part of the world lasts from January 1st through…through…forever.  It peaks during the sultry, moist, yeast filled days of summer but never really going away.

We are not celebrating or decrying summer yet despite the weather forecasts of near ninety temperatures this coming weekend.  The weather guessers have now backed off a bit saying mid-eighties.  The low seventies are forecast later in the week.

Summer heat and humidity will descend soon enough with thunderstorms followed by clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, “no see ‘ems” and yellow jackets erupting from holes in the ground.  We have already had several thunderstorms with hale and tornadoes but no huge clouds of mosquitoes…just little clouds of mosquitoes rising from the soggy earth looking for a bite.

This time of year is filled with wonderful scents should my allergies calm down enough for me to savor them.  My nose is running like a criminal from the scene of a crime, but at least my sinuses are not slamming shut like a jailhouse door.

Like mosquito season my allergy season is a year-long affliction.  My allergies peak in early spring with the yellow blossoms of forsythia and the green-yellow pollen from my hemlock trees before receding slightly before peaking again in late summer or early fall when the ragweed ramps it up again.  I wish winter would end the allergies and the mosquitoes…but no.  One more reason to hate winter.

Today seems to be the one day my allergies have ebbed enough for me to actually stop and smell the roses…or honeysuckle, multiflora roses, jasmine, and privet.  All are putting off their heady perfume and reminding me why my bride doesn’t let me cut them back, especially the honeysuckle.  The sweet smells allows me to travel back in my mind to a much simpler time.

The perfume of honeysuckle and privet dominated my childhood home, despite my grandmother’s best attempt to eradicate the honeysuckle.  Not that she didn’t like it or the hummingbirds it attracted but like the wisteria vine she also grew, honeysuckle had to know its place.  Its place was somewhere “out there” along the woodline, not “in here” near the garden.

I remember inhaling the aroma of honeysuckle blossoms before picking and carefully pulling out the style through the bottom of the blossom and treating myself to the small drop of nectar that came out with it.  A small, sweet treat I cheated the hummingbirds out of.  I’m still cheating the hummingbirds out of it.

My grandmother was an avid gardener, both in the fields she and my grandfather toiled in and the rock gardens she created from the stones she pulled from the rock-filled ground she tried to farm.  Milky, white quartz stones were highly prized and displayed prominently among the roses, iris, lilies, and hollyhocks she cultivated.  Except for the roses, none were as aromatic as the honeysuckle or privet hedges that surrounded the old farmhouse, she lived in.  None take me back to the days of playing alongside the dusty, dirt road I lived on like the sweet smell of honeysuckle and privet.

As I welcomed the dawn from my backdoor this morning, a sweet fragrance hung heavily and welcomed in the still air.  Honeysuckle with hints of privet hedge and jasmine…the multiflora rose is too far away but if I turn my back for a minute it may cover my drive.

It seems to be a perfect morning with Goldilocks and the Three Bears temperatures and a beautiful crescent moon showing clearly in the southeastern sky.  A bird roosting in the camellia bush sings loudly in agreement.

My little piece of heaven has honeysuckle and privet galore, out of control on fence lines and creeping toward my garden, threatening to overrun my home.  Like a good general, I pick my battles where I can, battles I can win against my memories and my wife.  My goal is not to win the war on honeysuckle and privet, just to continue to keep it stalemated.

Who am I kidding? I am losing but the sweet scents soften the blow.

Tomorrow I will arm myself with a weed eater and chainsaw while girding myself with a floppy brimmed booney hat, face gaiter, goggles, boots, and leather work gloves.  Blue jeans will replace my work shorts protecting me from the blackberries which are also in a war of dominance with the privet and lest I forget, the emerging kudzu.

The scent of Deep Wood’s Off and Banana Boat SPF 100 will briefly blot out the scents of honeysuckle and privet…but only briefly.  I will create a line in the sand, “Cross at your own peril!”…and the line will be ignored.   Deep down, I am glad.  The sweet smelling war will continue.

Further writings by Don Miller can be purchased and downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2xADU9Tanwff98vrukeigPx7fK6H1brWnklDG5Od_95wYn1PEpniUDvMQ

 

 

ALS Awareness Month

ALS took my Mother

May is ALS awareness month…I am quite aware.  It is also the month of Mother’s Day and my mother’s birth month.  They are all related.  I lost my mother due to complications of ALS on January 2, 1969.  I’m quite aware and have never come to grips with it..

ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, it is commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  It is not one of the more prolific diseases, only six-thousand new cases per year, only two deaths per one hundred thousand.  There is no cure.  My mother heard it’s banshee howl in 1963 and passed during my Freshman year in college.  Five plus years…the upper end of the projected life span after diagnosis.  I find little comfort in those facts.

The disease causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles.  Death of neurons causes the affected muscles to weaken and atrophy.  The heart is a muscle as is the diaphragm that allows you lungs to work.  The disease allows the brain to stay strong and aware…aware that their bodies are dying around it.

ALS is one of those diseases you get to watch your loved one waste away in slow motion.  Her symptoms began with a limp and a twitch in her foot.  She became unable to work, then unable to walk, unable to sit for more than a short period of time.  Finally, she became hospitalized…well not finally, I guess.  Finally, she died.

She spent Christmas with us that year.  She wanted to come home one more time.  An ambulance carried her home from Columbia and then returned her.  We visited on the 1st. I remember sneaking a visit to the waiting room, pausing to watch OJ Simpson take off on an eighty-yard run before his USC Trojans fell to Rex Kern’s Ohio State Buckeyes.  The odd things you remember when trying to forget your mother’s struggle to breathe.

She died just after midnight.  She was forty-eight but the ravages made her look older.

My mother, Eldora at home, Mary at work, Mom to me, was a robust red head, covered in freckles with a complexion that turned lobster red after a brief walk in the sun.  She did not tan.  A true Irish, fish-belly white redhead, she blistered.

I remember a woman who was quick to laugh but few of her pictures show her smiling. I just don’t remember what her laugh sounded like.  I don’t remember her voice.  I try to hear her voice in my aunt’s voice but I’m unsure.  I want to remember the voice that goes with my vision.  I’ll have to be satisfied remembering her smile, something she didn’t do enough.

The disease robbed me of memories.  I remember snatches of things, her teaching me how to find a breakout on a loom, and tying a weaver’s knot comes to mind and I really don’t know why.  There are other memories, some good…some bad.

Despite her laugh, I have the memory of a woman who was shy and somewhat proper…reserved?  If she was my grandmother’s child, she was reserved.   I remember her dressing in shorts around the house or on vacation, but I can never remember seeing her in pants…she dressed to the nines whenever out and about.

She was a weaver at Springs Mill and for some reason, her work seemed to dominate her life and my memories.  There was church,  the whole family sitting on the “special” pew. There was friends, trips to town, and visits to see family and friends.

Most Sundays were dominated by the church, an early morning breakfast of pancakes prepared by my dad before I polished my shoes and dressed.  After lunch a visit to either the Yarbrough’s, Wilson’s, or Sutton’s home or a visit by them to ours.  Sometimes it was family…a lot of the time it was family.

We always ate supper at home.  Regardless of the work schedule, we ate supper together.  Many nights it was a TV dinner, but we ate together.  Spaghetti on Saturday nights was a staple and Sunday’s dinner was always prepared at home after church.  There seems to have been more hours in the day back then.

I see her dressed for work, a pale-colored, cotton blouse with a rope of thread looped around her neck.  An A-line, lightweight skirt with an apron, never pants or shorts, her reed hook, and scissors in little pouches sewn into the apron.  A fashion statement?  She loved her job, a hard job but she loved it just the same.  Her job was where many friends who called her Mary were…and my father, Ernest, was there too.

The disease robbed her.  She was forced to go on disability shortly after I began my brief career working summers in the same weave room.  I had one summer with her.  It was almost as if my father, her loom fixer, was cheating on her as he fixed looms for another weaver.

I never gave my father enough credit for what he did while he was alive.  I didn’t understand how much he loved her.  He was attentive to a fault…there were fights…but he was there, by her side, doing what he needed to do.  I remember some nights when she was in the hospital he played solitare, tears in his eyes.

Playing solitare when he should have been resting for the six A. M. shift the next morning. It must have been painful watching his beautiful wife waste away.  Once she was in the hospital in far Columbia, he worked Monday thru Saturday, sometimes extra shifts before going to Columbia, every weekend, before starting over again on Monday.

She was chosen for a medical study.  I’m not sure they found out much.  Too much iron in her spinal fluid but there is still no cure.  I don’t know what we would have done had she not been accepted.  I know she wouldn’t have lived as long as she did without it.

Most weekends we traveled the seventy-seven miles to the State Hospital, first on Bull Street, later a closer new building just off I-26.  I remember the visits as painful.  I now realize how selfish I was, how I wished I could have been anywhere else, now wishing I could have a do over.

She took up painting when she became disabled, something to while away the hours.  I don’t know if she was good or not, I thought she was a Rembrandt.  The disease didn’t take that from her until the end.  Normally a disease that attacks men, ALS usually begins in the hands and arms.  Hers began in her legs and progressed upward.  Gradually it affected her breathing but never got to her hands.  Atypical…except her death.

The disease robbed her…and her children.  She never had the opportunity to see her grandchild or see her eldest son finally get “it” right.  Her youngest son got it right, to begin with.  She would be proud of the man he grew into and I’m sorry his memories are different than mine.

She would have been sixty-six when Ashley, my daughter, was born and would have loved Ashley and Linda and they would have loved her.  She would have been ninety-seven when Miller Kate was born.  Not impossible…not possible.

Yes, it is ALS Awareness Month.  It is easy to be aware when famous people are diagnosed or fall to the disease.  The famous like Lou Gehrig, Stephen Hawking, Dwight Clark, Sam Sheppard, and Jim Hunter come to mind.  They were robbed too.  Their families were robbed.  It is impossible for their families to think of them without thinking of being robbed by ALS.  I know this for a fact.

I had five years to prepare myself for her death, but I wasn’t prepared.  I refused to think about it, refused to believe it right up until I awoke just after midnight on the second of January.  I remember looking at the clock just before the phone rang.  I have successfully purged the time from my memory.

I wish I could remember my mother’s laugh.

The image is of Mary Eldora Miller at the beach in the late 1950s before the ravages of ALS…still she doesn’t smile.

 

Addendum

It turns out my Mother did smile…a picture from my brother.

Mom 2

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0FpZWCw_9me-FJa090w819hiX7LbcAUATfvvwRGENNYrUw_sol75s7tj4.

Proceeds from any book purchased or downloaded during May will be matched and donated to the National ALS Association to help support their research efforts.

Questions With No Answers

 

Before social distancing became the in thing, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years…jeez…more like forty.  I was excited to see her…considering our history excited is not the best descriptor.  Thrilled is a better word.  I was thrilled to see her.

We had a short-term tryst back in the day…just scratching certain itches.  Nothing heavy, a “friends with benefits” kind of thing before “friends with benefits” was a thing…it was the “free love” Seventies after all.  As I think back, I realize there was nothing free about love or even its unreasonable facsimile, lust.

She didn’t recognize me, even when I tried to explain who I was.  Despite the empty feeling in my stomach, I didn’t push it.  She seemed anxious in a bad way.  I think she’s had a stroke or is self-medicating…am I being narcissistic?  Maybe it was my beard, the balding head?  No, I believe there was something wrong.

She seemed frail and infirm.  A woman who once strode through the world confidently was reduced to little shuffles reminiscent of a Chinese woman who had had her feet bound.  The strong alto voice lacked volume and power.  The tall, long-legged, pleasing body seemed to be collapsing in on itself.  Always slender in a good way, she was much too thin.  Maybe it was me looking back on memories through my rose-colored reading glasses.

We remained friends after we both moved on to other places and people…at least I thought we had.  At some point, she seemed to disappear…but, not from memory.  I’ve thought of her often over the years wondering what happened to her.  Wondering if she was happy.  Remembering how foolish I had been.

I wondered if she had moved to a distant part of the world.  Whenever I asked friends, “Have you heard from….”, the answer was always in the negative.

In the mid-80s she decided she was gay and fell under the influence of a “stereotypical” lesbian woman.  You may substitute whatever “stereotype” you wish.  This woman is much more than a stereotype and stereotypes are such oversimplifications.

Still, the time was the Eighties and I was shocked and full of questions.  I’ve often wondered if she crossed over because she was truly lesbian or was it because she had been wounded so many times by people of my gender…or was it I was such a bad lover and friend I drove her to it.  Insecure much?  Ah…yes!

She stumbled and fell over several relationships during those late Seventies and early Eighties.  I wonder if I helped to trip her up as she attempted to recover.  An unwanted splinter under the fingernail of life.  You can tell she is an enigma, she always was.

Are my concerns more about me and my own guilt?  Is it about my own narcissism?  Is it my over-inflated self-importance?  Questions I can’t answer.  Maybe questions I fear to answer.  My greatest question, “Are you happy?”  I hope the answer is yes.

There are questions I can’t even ask.  My friend has dropped off the face of the earth even though she lives exactly where she has always lived.

I think about the crowd we ran with during those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Those days we were lucky to survive.  Those of us still alive have remained in touch.  More so as we have gotten older.  It is as if she has cut all ties with those days and the people who inhabited them with her.   Maybe she wanted to move forward while the rest of us are pulled toward the past.  I know I once did the same thing when my own mistakes became too much of a burden.  Memories too painful to remember…except you do.

Questions, more questions.  Answers, no answers.

***

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0813oF-UzSxgl3eyxNYLytu5JhnD70NuizUBdFlbjT2LTyVAXjPEBJZZE

Deep Impact

 

If you hope to be successful in life there are people who impact you.  I don’t know how successful I was but I certainly had people who guided me, mentored me, people I wanted to emulate.  Marilyn Koon Hendrix had the impact of a pile driver as far as my life is concerned.

I don’t know what I expected.  I didn’t know how a principal was supposed to act, but “Koon” certainly wasn’t what I expected.  She was a friend, a mother figure…maybe a god figure.  She was the standard I measured all other principals by.

She was certainly the queen of her realm.  Everyone knew who was in charge but not in a heavy-handed way.  No one would accuse her of being a micromanager.  She wanted to lead, taking you along because you wanted to go, not dragging you along because you had to go.

Mrs. Hendrix allowed you to teach or coach in your own way.  She was comfortable allowing you to learn by making mistakes, backing you the first time and expecting you to gain wisdom and not repeat the mistake.  I made plenty of mistakes those first few years and she made sure I learned from them.  My wisdom?  I made sure I didn’t make the same mistake again.

Koon was a big woman or maybe I should say, she had a big presence.  She cast a huge shadow, bigger than life.  To me, she was an Amazon in every way. A deep raspy voice and a hardy laugh she liked to use.  Koon worked hard and she played hard, she expected the same for those who worked under her.  She had an “if it ain’t fun, I ain’t wantin’ to do it” attitude and her attitude translated to all around her.  I tried to adopt her attitude throughout my career, always trying to find fun in what I was doing.

I was young and impressionable trying to soak up as much knowledge and wisdom as I possibly could.  I was a twenty-three or four-year-old child who couldn’t bear the idea of disappointing his parents or Ms. Koon…although I’m sure I did.

The youthful me was “country come to town” when I entered her office for my interview.  It was a casual affair…a sit down on the couch, she in her rocking chair.  A let’s get to know you kind of interview.  I found out we grew up in the same county, she the “huge” metropolis of Lancaster, me in a wide place in the road near a cow patty, eighteen miles north.

I’ve often looked back on that moment.  I’ve often wondered what she saw in an immature hayseed from Indian Land, but she offered me a job teaching Physical Science and coaching and my life’s course had been set.

As the interview ended, I remember she leaned in as if to tell me a secret, instead asking a question, “Do you think you can work for a woman?”  An odd question in today’s era but this was the early Seventies and she was the first female principal in Greenville County.  I wanted the job badly and would have worked for an Orangutan.  No, I never said such and working for a woman was no problem.  Working for Koon was a joy of a lifetime.

If you are successful there are usually one or two people who impact you.  I was lucky…I had many impactful role models just at Mauldin, many who never realized their effect on my life.  Many who are now gone but not forgotten.

I was fortunate, I got to tell Marilyn how much she meant to me a year or so ago.  One person I didn’t get to tell was Jay Lunceford who passed too quickly to tell.  I find it particularly ironic to have learned of Marilyn’s passing on the anniversary of Jay’s.

Saddening but then the memories come flooding in.  I’m not sure how we survived to have memories.  God takes care of the young and stupid.  Oh, the stories I could tell but won’t…some of the people involved are still alive.

Koon will be missed but she’ll never really die either.  I have too much love.  Too many people owe her much…much love.  Too many people have the warm glow you associate with the warm morning sun and with Koon.

I have hopes she and Jay have met up somewhere in the cosmos, telling tales, laughing with each other, reminding us of what it was to be a Mauldin Maverick back in the day. “Do you remember when….”  You bet I do.

Koon, I’ll miss you, but I’ll still be laughing with you, telling tales of those days…the good old days.

***

Clarification:  Jay Lunceford was the head football coach and athletic director at Mauldin High School…and the father figure to Marilyn’s mother figure.  He too had a significant impact on my life.  Unfortunately, he passed way too soon in the late Seventies due to a brain tumor.  I believe he was thirty-two.

Don Miller writes on various subjects and his author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from an old yearbook.  Marilyn Koon Hendrix when she was still Marilyn Koon.  I pray she’s not looking down pointing a finger at me.

“Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet…”

I saw the ’56 Chevrolet sitting at a local diner, parked off to the side as if to keep it out of harm’s way.  As a teen in the middle and late Sixties, the Belair was my dream car…my first unrequited love…just like Elizabeth Taylor looking wantonly at me from a picture wearing that light blue slip.   Neither proved to be attainable.  Both the car and Liz caused a flood of teenage hormones of Biblical proportions.  My teenage libido revved like the V-8 under the Chevy’s hood.

The car brought memories of pulling into Porter’s Grill or the Wheel-In as a teenager.   Sometimes with friends, occasionally with that special someone.  Carhops in white paper “garrison” style hats rushing out to take our orders in hopes of a good tip…”Don’t take no wooden nickels”…Ha!

Food brought on a tray that hooked on to your car door while the “Devil’s music” played from tinny-sounding speakers hung above the covered parking places. ”One, two three o’clock, four o’clock rock….”  The smell of deep-fried anything and sliced onions permeated my memories.  An “American Graffiti” moment…or maybe a Shoney’s Big Boy moment.

The car I paused to lust after was a bone stock Belair in turquoise and white and reminded me of many that I saw during my teenage years in the Sixties…except this one might have been in better shape fifty years later.  The car’s paint was flawlessly polished, the chrome smooth and shining in the bright sunshine, the interior clean as a whistle and only lightly worn.  Wow, what a beauty.  Is that a three on the tree?…nope, a two-speed PowerGlide.

My folks were Ford people for the most part right down to my Dad’s ’64 Ranchero.  My father did have a momentary lapse of judgment with a ’68 Buick Skylark.  Thankfully my brother wrecked it with no harm to himself.  Late in my father’s life, there was an Olds Cutless but no Chevys.

People of that day were loyal to certain car brands, especially during NASCAR races.  I pulled for “Fast” Freddie Lorenzen and his Galaxie 500…the same model we drove except his didn’t have four doors.  Pulled for him until he went over to the dark side driving Dodges and Plymouths.  “Traitor!!!!”

People kept cars longer back then and had time to develop loyalties.  There were no lease plans, people of my father’s generation just drove them until they wore them out, new technologies and designs be damned.  There were still many Forties vintage sedans parked in the church parking lot on a Sunday morning in the mid-Sixties.  Even a late Thirties Pontiac, headlights still on top of the fenders.

Despite our Ford loyalty, my older cousin’s Nassau Blue 55 Belair caused me to break a few of the Lord’s commandments.  Coveting was assuredly one.  It’s tiny two sixty-five V-8 fitted with Corvette accouterments and a racing cam put out a throaty growl as it flew low down Highway 521.

Three on the floor, I did love the white knob sitting atop the shifter.  Lake pipes peaked out from under the doors and matched the chrome rims with half-moon hubcaps.  Like most young teenagers I was in love.

The only Chevy I ever owned was a more rusted than blue ’72 Chevy C10 work truck I bought for a paltry one hundred and fifty dollars in the early Eighties.  It had been old long before I bought it and showed near one hundred thousand miles on its broken odometer.  There was still a throaty roar from rusted-out mufflers, the sucking sound associated with a Holly four-barrel, and an alternator whine you didn’t get from other brands.

I was a teenager in the muscle car era of the Sixties and drooled over ’63 Stingray Split Windows, GTOs, Cobras, Hemi powered Plymouths and the like…still do.   I couldn’t wait for my monthly Hot Rod Magazine to be delivered RFD.

Briefly, in the Seventies, I owned a ’66 GTO, “Little GTO, You’re really lookin’ fine.  Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389…”  Yeah, the old Ronnie and the Daytona’s tune pops into my head but my Marina Turquoise ’66 would fall to the wayside, abandoned due to rising gasoline prices and the oil embargo.  I wish I had had a crystal ball during those days, but single-digit gas mileages didn’t cut it.

My high school parking lot was loaded with tricked out Chevys, but few Fords.  Most were for show rather than go.  There was a white ’58 with the Impala badge that rocked with a type of slow lope associated with the 348 Chevy had introduced that year.  Red bucket seats matching the red trim down the side…a beautiful car.

Unlike baseball, cars were no more an American creation than…well…apple pie and hot dogs, but we found a way to turn them into the American culture traits the Chevy commercial sang about.

Young men piecing together spare parts into cheap “rat rods.”  Jan and Dean lamenting Dead Man’s Curve or ‘grabbing their girls and a bit of money’ heading out to Drag City.  The Beach Boy’s close harmony singing about their ‘Little Duece Coupe‘.  “Necking” at The Fort Roc Drive-In Theater before a milkshake at a drive-in diner, Hardee’s fifteen cent hamburgers, the suburbs.  Cars cruising main streets on Saturday nights across America.  The ultimate car TV show, Route 66.

I never drove across America’s highway, Route 66.  The closest was the Woodpecker Trail from North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida with its alligator farms, swamps, Spanish moss, and Magnolia trees.  Small signs posted at close intervals telling me that “the…end…is…near…Repent!”  Shops selling matching salt and pepper shakers to commemorate our travels.

Roadside pull-offs with picnic tables to enjoy homemade fried chicken wrapped in wax paper, Pepsi Colas iced down in old-style metal coolers.  Roadside treats geared toward travelers in their automobiles.  It would have been more exciting if I had made the trip in an early ‘60s Vette with either Tod or Buz instead of my family in a ’63 Ford.

Americans have a love affair with their cars, but I find that my tastes have changed.  I still pause and commit a mortal sin looking at cars from the period of my youth and wouldn’t turn down a ’61 Impala Bubbletop or an Oldsmobile 442.  A Jaguar XKE might be nice…hum.  I wouldn’t turn down the old four-door ‘63 Galaxie.

Today my taste runs toward the more utilitarian. Four-wheel drive pickup trucks, Jeeps or a certain Japanese vehicle quite capable of off-roading.  As ugly as my Landcruiser was I still miss the ’77 FJ-40 that was stolen from my front yard.  It broke my heart when I found it burned.  It breaks my heart when I see one for sale and the price they sell for.

Despite my change in taste I can still pause at a drive-in diner and appreciate an amazing old car.  Appreciate its artistic beauty and the efforts of its owner to maintain it…Appreciate my memories of past road trips and the cars that made them possible.

Intro to Route 66

Videos are courtesy of YouTube

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

The picture of the ’56 Belair was taken from Pinterest

My Little Copilot

 

When Tilly rode with me, she perched herself on my center console, a paw resting on my arm as if to say, “Aren’t you driving a bit too fast?” or “Your next turn is coming up.”  Maddie just crawled into Mommy’s lap and went with the flow.

Tilly

Sometimes she would rest her muzzle on my shoulder while giving puppy kisses.  I know it’s not smart to allow a puppy to ride on the console, but I grew up in an era when we pretended to surf from the back of a pickup truck.  I was much more careful with the puppies than I ever was with me.

Tilly 4

It is a memory I shall ever hold near my heart…because soon, memories will be all I have left.  Tilly, Miss Matilda Sue, is nearing the crossing of her rainbow bridge.

Her fall has been rapid.  We knew her sister was sick and near the end of her days…although she doesn’t seem to be any closer than when she was diagnosed with liver tumors.

After a suddenly rough night,  Tilly is calm and sedate.  She is in no pain.  We watch her breathe waiting for the last breath.  We have a four-thirty vet visit scheduled just in case.  A good portion of me hopes we don’t have to make it.

Almost fifteen years ago she and her sister, Maddie, Miss Madeline Rue, adopted us, stealing our hearts as they did.  Maddie is still with us, but I worry about how she will react to the absence of her sister.  They have been together for almost fifteen years.  Sometimes buddies, sometimes antagonist, always competitors for our hearts.  Sometimes I hate the circle of life.

Mad and Til

They imprinted on Linda more than they did on me.  I didn’t mind…I imprinted on Linda too.  It is also something I’ve found almost always happens, imprinting more on one than the other.  Late in their lives, both blind, Tilly deaf, they would wander their pathways searching for her scent anytime she was absent from their side.  I love her that much too.  I’m always anxious when she is not around.

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Mommy and her puppies

They were trouble but never troublesome…even when they escaped as mere puppies and traveled over a half-mile from home.  I can remember the joy of finding them replacing the guilt I felt for allowing them to escape.

They came into our lives after losing our long, long, long term puppy, Sassy Marie.  She was a stray who wandered up one day, skinny and skittish, and then left just as quickly…some sixteen years later all fat and Sassy.  She knew she was nearing her time and just left, leaving us to believe she still roams the hillsides around our home.  Maddie and Tilly won’t leave but will haunt us just as deeply…maybe more deeply.

Linda swore we weren’t ready for another pet, that we were just going to look.  A friend’s relative raised Blue Heelers and their puppy had had a litter of sixteen.  “I’m not going to get one, just going to look”, said she.  “Not going to get one?”  It turned out to be a question of how many.  The answer was two.

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We didn’t have a chance.  Two puppies made their way out of a mass of wagging tails, pointy, upright ears, and blue merle fur with hints of buckskin brown.  They demanded we take them and stole our hearts.  No, we had no chance at all.

L, m and T.jpg

They were too smart for our own good.  Tough knots.  Brave and stubborn, they repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way.  A snake bite here, a wasp sting there.  Sticking their muzzles where they shouldn’t.  There was no doubt they would have defended us with their lives.

My little co-pilot was odd from the beginning, with no Bentley mark and a crooked tail from a birth defect.  Maddie is the perfect one, Tilly the interesting one…no they were both perfect and interesting.  She is now scarred with a cauliflower ear and a gouged nose.   Her imperfections were perfect.  They made me love her even more.

They both brought me gifts but Tilly’s were the best and the worse.  A very alive Brown snake that escaped and I hope found its way out of the house.  Several possums…thankfully playing possum.  One decided to resurrect from the middle of the dining room, leading us on a merry chase through the house.  The other, carrying a half dozen joeys waited until I dropped her over the fence to waddle off as if nothing had happened.  Tilly always stood over them with her lopsided smile, “Look, Daddy, I’m a good girl.”  “Yes, you are.”

Tilly left us this morning (Monday) on her own terms.  She lived on her own terms.  I hope she is off somewhere chasing rabbits, trying to herd squirrels, barking at birds in the trees, ears up and tail pointing crookedly toward the sky.  No longer deaf and blind…no arthritis, no longer in pain.  Fifteen years was not enough…never enough.  I love you Tilly and miss you terribly already.

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Miss Madaline Rue April 1, 2005-December 16, 2019

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

THE BELL RINGER

A local icon has passed.  I think everyone is familiar with the Radio story, at least if you are from the South.  A book and movie chronicled the story of a mentally challenged young man who was befriended by a coach, school and community.  Radio went on to be what I call the “Bell Ringer” for his school.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth the rental with Cuba Gooding playing James “Radio” Kennedy and Ed Harris playing Coach Harold Jones.  I was lucky enough to have met both Radio and Coach Jones as we squared off against each other on many fields of athletic endeavor.  It was always a joy, win or lose to meet up with Radio.

Many small towns, even some larger ones, have bell ringers like Radio.  I call them bell ringers because of one special man who rang the victory bell at a local high school’s football field.  Some were flag bearers as they led their football team onto the field, through the goal post and hopefully on to victory.  One, after growing old in age but not spirit, was buried in the local Legion baseball uniform.  Undying loyalty even in death.

Young men who grew old but never quite grew up.  For some reason, God chose them to be both challenged and special.  They were folks who in addition to being challenged, were special to their schools and were their school’s number one fan and “Bell Ringer.”  They all possessed the wide-eyed wonderment and innocence associated with the young every time their teams took the field.

Radio passed last night at seventy-three.  He had been in bad health, in and out of the hospital will complications due to diabetes and kidney function.  His hugs and smiles will be missed by the school and community.

Last year the CBN network and 700 Club aired an interview and article on Radio’s and Coach Jones’s fifty-year friendship.  I cannot improve upon it so I will simply share it.  The link is…. https://www1.cbn.com/act-kindness-results-50-year-friendship.

You should take the time to watch the interview or read the article.  It not Coach Jones’s final quote is “People with special needs, you know, they give us more love than we can actually return.”   Radio certainly provided a lot of love.

Don Miller is a retired teacher and coach who is still trying to write the next great American novel.  His author’s page may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is of Harold Jones and Radio Kennedy and came from Greenville Online.

A Changing of the Guard

 

John McKissick has died.  The picture in the first obituary I read reminded me of a similar pose by General Douglas MacArthur…a green and gold baseball cap instead of a military-style hat with scrambled eggs on the visor, no corncob pipe, but the same jutting, strong chin, and intense look.  Arms crossed in front of his body, he was an imposing figure despite the hint of a smile.  The picture reminded me that along with soldiers, old coaches never die.  They live on in our memories, especially if they are legendary.  McKissick was legendary as was MacArthur…but without MacArthur’s narcissism.

I knew Coach McKissick…but I didn’t know Coach McKissick.  A big man, I shook hands with him and his hand swallowed mine.  He was the legend.  I was just starting out, a wet behind my athletic whistle young coach.  He was on his way to becoming the winningest coach in high school football, not just in South Carolina but nationally.  No one has won more games, 621, ten of them State Championship games.

Perspective.  He became the head coach at Summerville High School when I was two years old and retired the same year I did.  I coached for forty-five years.  He spent sixty-three years as the head coach at the same school.  Over five thousand players…in some cases, three generations of players.  Further perspective, he won 604 more games as a head football coach than I did.

Coach McKissick was a legend and I was a peon; a child and we all know children should be seen not heard.  I learned over time Coach McKissick would have never thought of me that way.  It was my own insecurities melting me under his gaze.

I misstated earlier.  Coach McKissick is a legend.  He still lives on in the hearts of his former players and coaches…and some people he never really knew.

At a clinic in the late Seventies, I sat just outside of his orbit making sure to be seen but not heard.  His orbit included the rest of South Carolina’s Football Trinity, Willie Varner and Pinky Babb.  They were the archangels of the religion known as Southern football…at least in South Carolina.  Together they have 1340 victories.  There were other angels at the altar of football but these three men were the most legendary of the legendary and McKissick would eventually fly higher than any with almost half of their total.

In the periphery of his orbit, I scribbled notes, hanging on his every word, hoping to pick up some tidbit to make my Xs better than someone else’s Os.  I should have listened more and quit writing notes.  For McKissick, as I learned, it was never about Xs and Os, it was about kids.  He was never a master strategist; he was a leader of men.

His former players use such descriptors as honest, motivating, inspiring, and inspirational.  Some use the greatest descriptor, a father figure.  These men speak of life lessons, those he taught and they learned.  They speak of how John McKissick was the town and school of Summerville.  Not one speaks of Xs and Os.

In an interview in Charleston’s Post and Courier by Gene Sapakoff, Coach McKissick refused to let his light shine when asked the keys to his success.  I quote directly from the Post and Courier, “I was in a good place and I was surrounded by good people; coaches, administrators, and some good players,” McKissick said. “I’ve always heard that if you surround yourself with good people who work hard, good things will happen.”

I dare say, it took a special coach to pull it all together and keep it going for sixty-three years.

The old guard was changing before Coach McKissick retired.  Babb and Varner had crossed over to their hereafter and many others of the old school had retired.  New coaches were lining up to take their places.  New legends in waiting…they’ll never be McKissick.

Football, the game, was evolving from a straight-ahead, three yards and a cloud of dust, bust you in the chops game to a more pass-happy, spread you out, finesse rather than smack you in the face game.  Honestly, I don’t recognize it sometimes.

I’m sure Coach McKissick changed how he attacked other people’s Os with his Xs but I’m also sure he never changed the way he coached.  You don’t have to change the way you coach when you coach kids and not a game.

Rest in peace Coach McKissick, rest in peace.

Featured image from USA Today, (Photo: Associated Press)

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