SHANTIES

This past spring, on a trip to the coast, my wife and I decided to forgo the speed and ease of interstate travel for the interest factor of backroad pig trails. Despite the black water rivers and swamps cutting the land, vast fields and pastures seemed to overtake the two-lane road. Where there were homes, yards were at a minimum…except where pecan tree lined drives led to two story homes featuring circular drives, wrap around porches and columns. Mostly of the homes peaking my interest were small, broken down and square, four room homes dating from share cropping days or possibly earlier. The shanties sat on small square parcels of land and would be surrounded by towering corn stalks, tobacco or cotton by late summer. Known for rice and indigo during our colonial period and cotton during antebellum times, I guess land was too precious to allow for large plots of land to be used for recreational purposes…especially when there was little time for recreation. “Early thirty to dark thirty” days would soon be upon the farm workers of this coastal city and the surrounding area just as it had been decades ago…or may be centuries.

As I drove through the land I imagined poor whites and poorer blacks inhabiting the old share cropper’s shanties, battling each other for a life as “casual” farm laborers, having given up on the pursuit of jobs in the city. An elderly black woman stepped out of one of the tar paper houses, its broken-down front porch resembling the sway back of an overused plow horse. She was dressed as her ancestors dressed, a brightly colored scarf wrapped around her head and a long-sleeved print dress above what appeared to be bare feet. As I breezed past I almost asked out loud, “I wonder what tales she could tell?” While the journey was interesting, I became somber and introspective.

Tar paper and graying, slab wood shacks occasionally dotted the landscape around my childhood home. There was an abandoned and overgrown shack next to my house used as a clubhouse of sorts by my best friends and me. The younger me never thought about what it or these other broken-down homes represented. Our clubhouse was just a place to discuss girls, sneak smokes and talk about whatever preteens talk about…until our parents found out. I didn’t understand share cropping, tenant farming or farming on the lien back then. People bound to the land living from harvest season to harvest season, praying to pay off their crop lien or having a large enough share to put a bit of money away for the future. Hoping to buy a small piece of heaven of their own.

A friend of color told me of an ancestor of his born into slavery. Working as a tenant farmer on the same expanse of land he had toiled on before his own day of jubilee. Scrimping and saving until he could buy his own parcel of land. Clearing the land with his four children and wife, milling his own lumber and building his own four room palace. I’m positive he felt it was a palace. Filling it with hope and joy, twelve kids worth, growing his own work force and I hope expanding his little piece of heaven. There must be a tribute of some sort, especially when one considers the road blocks thrown in front of former slaves. Perseverance, persistence and a lot of patience I would suggest paid off in the long run.

As I’ve written before, my grandparents began their married life as farmers on the lien but they had several safety nets; family, the textile mills and they were white. Their dream included sixty acres and putting a child through college. Maybe there is hope instead of sorrow and the American Dream still exists. Hard work may in fact pay off.

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

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AN OLD FARMHOUSE PORCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUR FOREFATHERS WERE BUILT OF STERNER STUFF!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AH…SPRING

Wow! An actual spring this year. Most years we simple go from the dead of winter to the height of summer in a twenty-four-hour period. There were a couple of days when I worried as the thermometer edged past a somewhat comfortable eighty-five into an uncomfortable near ninety. But thankfully no, it was simply a harbinger of the heat, humidity and mosquitoes to come. We are in the midst of “blackberry winter” with beautiful white blackberry blooms adorning our roadsides bring cool morning temperatures and warm, but not hot, afternoons. Moderate evening temperatures allow for outdoor activities involving a cigar, an adult beverage, a comfortable sweat shirt and the smell of sweet honeysuckle mixing with the aroma of my Dutch Master’s Honey Corona. Ah…Spring!

The local bear paid me his annual spring visit last night, pulling down my fence before making off with two bags of trash. “Pooh Bear” found no honey but seemed to enjoy the empty peanut butter jar…once he got into it. He was not a very tidy diner but at least he left both bags “relatively” close together and intact. Last year his “great trash robbery” was left scattered over an acre. Linda Gail and I have enjoyed watching a small brown snake, variety not color exactly, make his slow, early morning trek up into the tangle mess of Linda’s clematis while waiting for the morning sun to warm the very cockles of his little fork-tongued soul. I’m not too worried about my bird families because even the smallest babies are larger than the snake. Flick, flick goes his tongue. Several mornings ago I watched a doe and two small, spot covered, fawns cautiously follow the stream past my garden. I hope they don’t discover my tender spring plantings. Ah…Spring!

As I sat outside in my camp chair last night, I was treated to a concert of sorts. I had decided to enjoy a second adult beverage and heard the melodic yet lonesome call of a whippoorwill. I heard no answering call and could not help but softly sing “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, He sounds too blue to fly, the midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Thank you Hank Williams. My moroseness was short lived when the owls began their serenade. They certainly are not lonesome. It won’t be long before their hooting will be joined by the cicadas and their short lived mating chant along with the fireflies and their flashing message, “Here I am, lets skip the light fandango.” Ah…Spring!

Unfortunately, even the Garden of Eden had its serpent. My little piece of heaven does too and I am not speaking about my friendly little brown snake. With spring comes beautiful flowers, green trees, the honeysuckle and my “god awful” allergies! A serpent disguised as postnasal drip…no, disguised as a postnasal flood of biblical proportions. Noah had nothing on me and there are no rainbows to signify the end of the flood. I think I may drown in my own pool of…mucus and wonder why God decided to place our noses upside down over our mouths. I have an equally allergic friend who I converse with several times a week. Our conversations seem to always begin with “My allergies are…” take your pick. I’ve attempted all of the fixes and found I cannot sleep standing up. My allergy tests showed I was allergic to one hundred and forty-four different grasses and weeds, all possibly found in my backyard. Trees, including the dozen or so Beech trees found around the stream behind my house, assorted molds and mildews, and cocklebur. I’ve got them all and I tried all the remedies. Weekly allergy shots for two years to a daily teaspoon of local honey and everything in between including three different allergy prescriptions, all taken at the same time. Maybe a World War One gas mask might work but I fear it would simply fill up and drown me in the end and there is no end in sight until the cold, unwelcomed winds of winter. Ah…Spring…Ahhhhhhh Chooooooooo, sniff, sniff, sniff, cough, cough, cough!

For more of Don Miller’s unique view of life click on http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

ANIMALS GOING BUMP IN THE NIGHT

Since only six of you actually saw the original blog I decided to “rebrand,” “re-picture” and “reblog” this in hopes more people would find in enticing. We will see. Two divorces say I have been disappointed before.

Viewed from a distance, sitting on top of a small hill and surrounded by hemlock, poplars and black walnuts, our old farmhouse looks like it might be haunted and must be inhabited by all types of “haints”, poltergeists or spirits. This assumption is especially fitting when viewed during the darkness of night. Some of my students have even made comparisons of Casa de Miller to the “Bates’ Motel” of Alfred Hitchcock fame. So haunted it looks, in the thirty years we have lived here not one Halloween trick-or- treater has had the intestinal fortitude to come to our door despite the brightly burning outside light. I have to admit I have seen unexplained movements just inside of my vision’s periphery and have heard noises I just could not explain as the “creakings” of an old house. “I ain’t afraid of no ghost!”

Built in 1888, it sits on top of oak timbers milled from the land it was built upon. Although we did not know it at the time, our old home had beadboard walls and ceilings to go with pine flooring, wavy lead glass windows, and was covered by tin shingles. It also sat bathroom-less with no plumbing or electricity until 1956. My guess is that most of the winter functions “back in the day” took place in the small kitchen due to the heat produced by the cook stove and the close proximity to the path leading to the distant outhouse. The old house also had no insulation until 1956 when shredded paper insulation was blown into the walls. Sixty years later, my guess is the insulation has compressed just a wee bit. Mr. Copeland, Hemlock Hill’s previous owner, was a fount of information with a former minister’s well developed “sense of the spoken word.” In preparation for his retirement, he had purchased the house and land in the 1950’s after it had sat empty for several decades. Later it would be inhabited by human beings off and on until Mr. Copeland finally retired from “preachin’ the Gospel” in the late Seventies. I say “inhabited by human beings” only because it was and still is inhabited by more than just two-legged animals and their four-legged pets as we found out when removing the cheap paneling and ceiling tile covering our beadboard walls and ceilings.

While moving in we noticed the quilting room, complete with quilting racks and their supports, had no paneling or ceiling tile. Mr. Copeland had converted the quilting room into his study and informed us the whole house was done with the old-fashioned beadboard the study sported. He had put cheap quarter-inch paneling up to help insulate the house. Really? Quarter-inch? The next month or so “lifetime” was dedicated to the removal of the ceiling tile and paneling. We found out two things. Similar to his verbal skills, Mr. Copeland believed if one nail would do the job, four ought to be used…more if there happened to be a pine knot nearby. His philosophy seemed to be “Nothing done could be overdone.” The one-by-four-inch strips of wood that held the ceiling tile were almost impossible to get down because of the four ten-penny nails spaced every foot or so. Our second discovery was that Mr. Copeland had no issue about covering up dirt dauber nests or bird pooh. The same was true of the paneling but, at least, he used the small paneling nails…thousands of small paneling nails. There were also several large snakeskins found, not only in the attic but in other rooms as well. Okay…where there are snakeskins….

Old houses make noises. Creaks and groans make me wonder if there is a “life” existing inside of our old home. There were other noises that could not be explained away as just the “settling” of the old house. Some of the ghostly noises we heard emanated from the old attic and a downstairs…for lack of a better descriptor… “cubby hole” in the upstairs master bedroom. Thumps and squeaks with the pitter-patter of little feet led us to believe that there had to be a herd of mice in our downstairs “cubby hole.” There were also those periodic booming sounds as something traversed the metal roof during the darkest moments of the night that didn’t sound like a mouse. One night Linda and I decided to explore the “cubby hole” and its strange noises not really wanting to find a colony of mice. We didn’t. Instead, we found a colony of flying squirrels. It’s amazing what the width of a tail will do to your mood, especially when one of the “big eyed” rodents decided to make his getaway by gliding from a rafter to a small opening that led to the outside. “Rocket J. Squirrel” didn’t stay there. Later we would find colonies in unused chimneys, behind my books in the study. One “little gamester” would send our indoor cat “Minnie Muffin” into a “hissy fit” as it glided back and forth between the fireplace mantle and bookcase in the study. The booming noises on the roof? We still have no idea and just named it a “boomer.”

Typically, male, I came in from a morning of cutting and splitting wood, pulled off my boots and socks, stuffed the socks into the boots and left them in the hallway next to our staircase…for about two weeks. Linda finally took me to task, firstly, over leaving them for her to trip over and secondly, because, according to her highly developed sense of smell, they stank like something dead. I took offense to the idea that my boots stank until I took out a sock and found what I thought was a dead rat rolled up in it. Our simultaneous “GROSS!” exclamation changed to an “OH NOOOOO!” exclamation when it turned out to be a flying squirrel. From here our explanations of its unfortunate demise took two different paths. I said that death was due to it rolling up in the sock and becoming trapped. My love explained that it met the grim reaper after having breathed the stench of my boots.

We may have become too used to the creaks and groans that our home emits…or maybe to the ghosts, spirits or flying squirrels who decided that our home was just too crowded for them. I just don’t hear them anymore and it makes me feel just a bit sad. Those scratches made by the real mice? That’s another story or five for another day.

If you enjoyed this story you may be interested in one of Don’s books

Inspirational true stories in WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING $1.99 on Kindle at http://goo.gl/DiO1hcX
“STUPID MAN TRICKS” explained in Don Miller’s FLOPPY PARTS $.99 on Kindle http://goo.gl/Ot0KIu “Baby Boomer History” in Don Miller’s PATHWAYS $3.49 on Kindle http://goo.gl/ZFIu4V

All maybe purchased as paperbacks.