Summers Now Past

Or when I reaized Peter Pan had died.

My best summers are behind me not ahead.  If memory serves me, my best summers ended when my hand could reach around the end of a hoe handle or I became strong enough to heft a square bale of hay and toss it onto the back of a flatbed truck.  It certainly ended the summer I walked into the den of heat and noise that was Springs Mills.  Peter Pan died that day.  Despite my best efforts I had grown up.

The last day of school before the summer break.  Elementary school kids squirming in their seats waiting to cast off the chains of their forced imprisonment.  “I’m free, I’m free!”  And just like that, it was September again.

No more Tonka toys and little green soldiers in a sandy ditch.  No more corn cob fights with Mickey and Donnie Ray around the barn. No more playing war in red clay banks around the cornfield.  Fewer trips to the river to check trotlines or intently watching a bobber while praying for a bit of a nibble just to let me know something was down there.

Ode to youth now past.

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge a high-pressure dome is making life unbearable.  Hot, hot, hot.  Humid, humid, humid…but no rain.  Hotter than two mice mating in a wool sock and even the devil is bitching about the humidity.  Despite the humidity and the thunder that rumbled around yesterday, my garden is dryer than a popcorn fart.

There is something about the heat and humidity that brings the memories back.  I question how I survived without air conditioning but somehow, I did.  Tall screenless windows at school, perspiration dripping on notebook paper as I practice my letters.  A wasp flies through the window causing a momentary lull in the activities.

No reprieve at home or at church on Sunday.  Humidity and heat causing my shirt to stick to the lacquered seatback.  Ladies in pillbox hats, gloves, and long sleeves fanning as if their lives depend on it, and it may have.  Men in suits and ties sitting stoically in their own perspiration.  The minister announces with a thump of his Bible, “If you think it’s hot now…just wait.  Benediction please.”

As I remembered, my back was bent toward the ground as I straddled the short row of beans.  Perspiration ran down my nose and was soaked up by the dusty soil underneath me as the rivulets landed with a plop.  My sweat ran like the Catawba River during the rainy season when my revelation occurred.  I was thinking of a simpler time.  In my mind my grandmother is beside me, both of us straddling a row, the sweat running down both our noses.

Summer was the time to make hay while the sun shone…tomatoes, beans, squash, okra, watermelons, and corn too.  The sun shone hotly and pulled the moisture into the air encapsulating me in what seemed like a wet, wool blanket.  Hot, moist sun-heated air.  Squash and cucumbers wilting, corn stalk leaves drooping in the afternoon heat…humans wilting and drooping as if they were plants.

As I shift briefly to the present, I realize, there will be good Summers ahead…they will just be different.  Miller Kate and Noli cavorting, splashing in the pool remind me of their mother searching for crawdads and salamanders in the stream by the house.  A memory that brings the smile to my face.  It is about their memories and dreams now.  Mine are still focused on the past.

I remember the welcomed afternoon thunderstorms.  The smell of ozone heralding the cooling winds to come…a few minutes of chill until the sun returned…heat and humidity with it.  Storm clouds outlining the distant water tower in Waxhaw to the east, the western sun reflects off of the tower and makes the thunderheads seem ominous.

My grandmother’s admonishment, “Don’t stand in the draft you might get hit by lightning” or “Get away from the sink!  Lightning will fry you like fatback.”  Needless to say, nothing electrical was turned on especially the TV.  Lightning strikes were worrisome on her hilltop if the lightning rods on the hip roof of my grandmother’s house were to be believed.

Despite sitting in a low ‘holler’, the transformer down the river road from my house was hit a few times and I remember mini lightning flashes jumping between the telephone and the lights over the kitchen bar.  Probably shouldn’t answer the phone.

Ball jars filled with water and wrapped in newspaper to keep it cool.  It didn’t work.  Water was welcomed even warm.  There were times I would have sucked the water from a mud puddle if I could have found one.  Those transcontinental rows of corn that needed to be hoed or forty ‘leven thousand hay bales to toss and stack.  There is nothing much hotter than corn, hay, or cotton fields during July and August.

Inside the relative cool of a non-airconditioned kitchen, sweet Southern iced tea, or a glass of chilled buttermilk, helped to quench your thirst.  Drops of condensation succumbing to gravity on the side of an iced jelly glass…Sylvester the Cat staring back at me, a huge grin on his face.  He knew how much I enjoyed the tea and the peanut butter cookie that accompanied it.  

Late in the harvest season, a watermelon might be picked and put in a nearby stream to cool.  Maybe a ripe tomato or two.  Late afternoons we would crack open the bounty and fight off the horse flies as watermelon juice mixed with the sweat and dripped from our fingers and faces.

In this new timeline, I think about cracking open the Tanqueray and adding some tonic and lime.  What? We have no lime?  Wait! Ah, I found one.

I stare out of my French Doors wondering if I really want to leave the air conditioning to cut grass or pick beans…or do anything else…  How did I get so old?  I also know that the extra piece of watermelon I want to eat will add at least two trips to the bathroom during the night.

I once had an old man tell me the problem with getting old.  “Young man, you know what is bad about gettin’ old?”  I think I was fifty at the time.  In his overalls with a fedora pushed back on his head, he answered the question I had not asked, “There are no dreams left for old men.”

I thought I knew what he meant.  Dreams of love, or an unreasonable facsimile. Getting ahead in the world, earning triumphs and victories, winning another state championship, and overcoming the disappointments of being close but no cigar.

The old man was correct.  There are no pursuits of state championships any more but I would edit his comment.  “There are no young man’s dreams but there are dreams.”

Dreams of a different time when Peter Pan was still alive.  Dreams of summers without a care in the world…a time when I knew I never wanted to grow up…but yet I did.

Still, I shan’t be sad.  There will be good summers ahead as long as my sun continues to rise.  I won’t dream only of the past.  Even dreams must change with time.

***+

The image is of a summer sunset from Pixabay and found on The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3YwCXc-tSERSihnz93ceDKB3PzxGIYX3lVWrJx3-mYmPV89rNT4j7PvxA.

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

 

Diddlin’ Where You Ought not to Diddle

 

When I found myself in a position which allowed me to impart coaching wisdom acquired over my forty-five year career, half-jokingly I advised, in no particular order, “Don’t diddle where you ought not diddle, avoid messin’ with money, win over the Mommas while avoiding diddin’ where you ought not diddle, and wear good shoes, your feet will appreciate it.”  During my career, I only ran afoul of one…oh, so you want to know which one?  My feet hurt…a lot.

Since my last brush with a surgeon’s knife, I realized I should have added a fifth nugget of wisdom, “Big floppy hats and sunscreen are a must.”  Might even add long-sleeved tees and long pants.  I’ve found out your skin will appreciate it.  Unless you like doctors diddling in your calf with a scalpel and suturing you up after.

My fifth surgery to remove skin cancer!   Not a good way to lose weight.  One on an ear, three on my lower legs, and one I don’t understand at all…the sun ain’t evah seen my lily-white butt…ocks.  Well, there was the time a hornet flew up my short britches leg.  Shucking them, the sun wasn’t the only thing that saw my lily-white ass.  There were several cars and a church bus along with the various plants, animals and insects in my garden.  I didn’t get stung…well…nobody whistled or cheered their approval and that stung a bit.

Too many years battling the summer sun on the farm or the athletic fields in minimal attire has come back to bite me.  I guess I shouldn’t have diddled in the sun wearing shorts, tees and a baseball cap.  When I had a physique, I would bronze myself too.  Shirtless, skimpy gym shorts and kicks riding round and round on a tractor, hatless and brainless until I lost most of my hair.  A smart person would have put on SPF 50 or at least a hat.  I’m not sure sunscreen had even been invented.

My best friend chose the same vocation, is my age, and eat up with the same affliction.  Never believing in half measures, he might as well be a vampire.  He runs and walks in the dark to stay out of the sun.  Does his yard work in the early morning hours much to the chagrin of the people who are sleeping in.

If my friend has to venture out into the midday sun, he puts on so much sunscreen he looks like Bo Derek painted white in Tarzan the Ape Man…no that’s a lie and now I’ve got a mental picture I can’t get out of my head.  I think I’ll have to Google a picture of Bo just to replace it.  A bad excuse is better than none.

My grandmother worked in the sun all her life.  She wore feed sack dresses and a huge floppy straw hat  No sunscreen, no skin cancer.  A  farmer all her life, she worked side by side with her father, then my grandfather and continued to plant and hoe her beans, maters, and taters for forty more years after his death.  No skin cancer but a complexion resembling old shoe leather.  I guess I should have paid better attention.

It seems like there is more skin cancer these days than say fifty years ago…or am I just aware of it since being afflicted?  Are we losing our ozone layer, more pollution, and chemicals in the air?  Global Climate change?  Marvin the Martian’s Immodium Q-36 Space Modulator?  Probably I’m just more aware or they ignored it fifty years ago.

I should have worn floppy straw hats…my legs aren’t good enough to do justice to a feed sack dress.

Oh well. The damage has been done.  No sense crying over spilled milk, but I truly hate giving a little piece here and a little there.  Now Janis has joined Bo in my head, singing in my head, “Take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby! Break it!  Break another little bit of my heart now, honey.”

I need to stick another song in my head cause if the surgeon takes a little piece of my heart, I’m in deep do-do.  Maybe Katrina and the Waves, “Walking on Sunshine”…can you get skin cancer listening to a tune in your head?  At least I didn’t diddle where I ought not to diddle…maybe.

Okay, ice and elevate.

For those of you who are concerned, don’t be.   I see a doctor every three months to keep a handle on it.   I’ve done better wearing my big floppy hats, long-sleeved tees, face shields and applying sunscreen.   Now if I can do something about my feet.

The featured image is from http://www.webesailing.com/activities.htm

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

 

 

My Zucchini Boats are Sinkin’

In a post from the spring a year ago, I bemoaned my inability to grow zucchini squash. I also found out as I reread the post, I misspelled catalog four times. Where were the grammar Nazis when I needed them? Misspelled words are the least of my worries.  My worry is zucchini.

I grow zucchini fine…the plants…up to a point. I have the deepest green, tropical looking leaves. Locals come from miles around just to sit in their shade.  Too much nitrogen? Maybe.

Huge plants grow to blot out the sun. Just about the time the fruit begins to form the squash bugs hit. Whamo! Midget Mesozoic Era looking thingees that suck the very life out of my plants. That’s if the plants survive the squash borers or too much rain or too much dry heat or too much whatever. I don’t know how REAL farmers survive.

Image result for squash bugs

The leaves once so big and green turn yellow, then gray, then brown. It is as if every bit of moisture is sucked out of them. They curl in the sun and when I pick up the Sahara dry leaves little gray things run willy nilly. If I’m lucky, I find the little orange eggs before they become little gray things and scrap them off.  If not I look like Jarabe Tapatio doing the Mexican hat dance on their beady little heads.

Bug control

I tried to do the organic thing on all my veggies not just zucchini. Organic fertilizers, Neem Oil, Liquid soap spray, diogenous earth. Prayers to Zeus, Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. This is after prayers to Jehovah were never answered. I considered animal sacrifices or contacting a Voodoo priestess.  Anyone know any witches?

Image result for macbeth witches gif

Mostly I pick the little good for nothing rascals off and squeeze them until poop shoots out their little bottoms. I like the satisfying crunch as their exoskeleton implodes between my thumb and forefinger. Too graphic?

Every morning latex gloves shield my hands from the smell of greenish brown, bug juice. I wonder if they can hear me coming…crunch, crunch, crunch. Staring up as my shadow blots out the sun, I can almost hear their squeaky little Mr. Bill voices yelling, “Oh nooooo! Sluggo has returned! Run, run, run.” Well, you can run but you can’t hide…well I guess you can.

Related image

Satisfaction in the fear they must feel. Satisfaction masquerading as greenish brown bug juice. Satisfaction when I hit the lottery and crushed the two I caught in the act of “faire crac crac boum boum”. Need I offer a translation? Did they die with a smile on their ugly, little, bug faces?  I have to say, “That’s an interesting way to make whoopie.” 

Image result for squash bugs

Well, I figured it out this year. I thought about my grandmother. Her response to squash bugs was Sevin dust. Actually, her reaction to any unwanted critter was Sevin dust or sending the grandkids out to pick the critters off.  Organic gardening was not her long suit.  I know, I know. “You can’t claim to be organic now!” I DON’T CARE! I HAVE A BUMPER CROP OF ZUCCHINI INSTEAD OF SQUASH BUGS!
Now I have another problem. “What the firetruck do I do with all of this zucchini?” You got your boiled zucchini, fried zucchini, roasted zucchini, grilled zucchini, zucchini casserole, zucchini bread, zucchini spaghetti…you got your zucchini boats.

Come at the zucchini, you best not miss.

For more “stuff” or a boatload of zucchini, like Don Miller’s author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Anyone with interesting ways to use zucchini is welcome to leave a comment.

Privet… Oh, How I hate Thee!

 

Right up there with Kudzu.  After weed whackin’, choppin’, and pullin’ for five hours I got my first patch knocked down.  I liberated some bear plant, a couple of nandinas, a large patch of tiger lilies and iris and what I think is wild almond.  A lot of honeysuckles and wild blackberries came out too.  Sorry for droppin’ my gees but I do that when I’m tired… I’m very tired.  I’ve still got two patches to go… did I mention I’m sore? Oh, my everloving back!

Some fool decided to introduce privet to the US from Asia in the 1700s.  It’s called a hedge, but I find it to be a very un-hedge like hedge.  It’s not thick like a hedge I would want or I’m not growing it correctly.  Privet roots creep underground and send up shoots when it senses sunlight and creeps along some more and sends out more shoots, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera until you have a patch the size of Rhode Island.

Folks from the US must not be very bright… nothing political there… much.  After Asian privet… why would we think Asian kudzu was a good idea?  I’m a dumb American, I followed up with Asian honeysuckle…not that it is a problem… oh yes, it is! Pretty, aromatic and a problem… except on an early summer’s night when the scent reaches me, carried through my open windows by a gentle breeze.

Privet…a problem at best.  I normally cut down my privet two or three times a year… along with the kudzu, honeysuckle, and blackberry that tangles themselves with it.  I had some health issues last summer and I think I must have missed a whackin’ or two.  Between privet, kudzu, blackberry and the local variety of honeysuckle I probably could stay busy with twelve-hour days during the summer.  I just try to stay a little behind.  It helps that my wife won’t let me touch the Asian honeysuckle under threat of a frying pan upside my head.

Privet does put off some white blossoms in the spring… and poisonous, blue-black berries in the summer. Don’t believe the privet blossoms have a scent but I know if I don’t get the plant down before it blooms, my bride won’t let me touch it.

I didn’t always hate privet.  Right outside my grandmother’s backdoor was a patch of privet…patch?  More like a …a forest of privet.  Way tall privet, not hedge-like at all.  She had allowed it to grow redwood style and then hollowed out the center of the patch to create an outdoor room.   Protected from the harsh summer sun, she kept the running roots clipped when they poked their little heads out of the ground.  Kept the dirt swept clean with a twig broom.  It was OUR hidden retreat from the summer sun, a bountiful garden that grew a child’s imaginative games.  Good memories!

I remember chasin’ lightning bugs through the canopy created by the privet or making mud pies using the dark soil as a primary ingredient.  I remember singin’, “Doodlebug, Doodlebug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your kids are all gone” over a hole in the ground not knowin’ what a doodlebug was or why his house was on fire.

I remember jaybirds fighting over the cracked corn my grandmother put out on her feeders.  Their chatter was loud and raucous.  Sitting and listening to bird calls while my grandmother broke beans or cut corn.  Hearing her say, “Listen chile, that’s a catbird” or a mocking bird or whatever.

I remember hoppin’ on a wide flat rock and havin’ it walk off with me standing on it.  Dang big turtle…course I wasn’t very old or big.   Had soup that night, too.  Yum.

Yeah, that privet wasn’t too bad.  I must raise bad privet…at least bad privet rekindled a few memories.

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

Little Bastards

I really can’t think of much that I dislike about living in the South…ummmm…summertime humidity and mosquitoes can be found anywhere. Right? Sometimes we Southerners only have two seasons – “damn cold or damn hot” … occurring in just the blink of an eye. An old South Carolina saying tells us a lot about our climate. “If you don’t like the weather now just wait a minute. It will change.” I find this to be true during the spring and fall.

I remember a “damn Yankee” football player from the early 90’s who had joined us from one of the “I” states, Indiana I think, and who, before our first August football practice, explained to me that “I can handle the heat. It gets hot in Indiana, too.” An hour later, after his eyes had rolled back in his head, I was cooling him off with ice water soaked towels and forcing him to take sips of Gatorade. Yes, it does get hot in Indiana but, “It ain’t the heat in the South. It’s the humidity!”

When Linda Gail and I moved into our little “piece of heaven” we had no air conditioning. Open windows and ceiling fans moved warm and humid air and reminded us of our youth…except for the ceiling fans, we did not have during either one of our youths. More concerned with conserving heat during the wintertime, unlike” flat land country” farmhouses, ours had eight-foot ceilings instead of ten footers and late in the day, our lower ceilings would trap heat. A lot of late evenings were spent talking on the porch until it was cool enough to go to bed. A breeze might bring the smell of honeysuckle while we listened to the cicadas and other night sounds. I might enjoy a cigar while staying hydrated with a few adult beverages…until the mosquitoes came for dinner. No matter how much citronella we burned or how many fans we used, the little blood suckers seemed to always find us…and still do.

Mosquitoes are just a fact of life in the South and I praise God they don’t grow to the size of vultures. On a trip to the coast, I remember making an impromptu nature call where the only facility available was an old fire road in the middle of a pine forest off South Carolina’s Highway 17. As I completed my task, I looked down to ensure nothing got caught in the zipper and could see a cloud of mosquitoes attempting to make off with my man part. Itchy and it was in November! F&%K it! I DID zip up too quickly! For some reason, Linda Gail thought it was hilarious until the little vampires who had followed me into the car decided she was sweeter meat than I was. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.

We have “stinging” insects too. Wasps, hornets, bees, even a little bitty thing that might be called a “no see um” … if I could see um’. Generally, I dislike them all. Specifically, I hate the yellow jacket. The little “bastards!” They are small hornets who build nests underground, under leaves or in hollow stumps. Related to bald-faced hornets and common wasps, they are much faster, more aggressive and make a honey bee sting seem like a French kiss from your beloved. If you step into a yellow jacket’s nest, you will not get stung once but several times and the little bastards will pursue you. Talk about holding a grudge.
The first time I stepped into a nest I got stung a dozen times, all from the knees down. When I finished beating them off of me I found my legs covered in “stinging” whelps that slowly, over a matter of days, turned into itchy, oozing wounds that resembled cigarette burns despite being treated with Linda Gail’s “old time remedy,” chewing tobacco and Arm and Hammer soda. This was also despite initially wearing heavy blue jeans, boots and heavy socks. I say initially because I “shucked” my pants quickly.

Over time I have found it better to wear shorts. You get stung fewer times before being alerted to “run like hounds of hell” are after you and the wounds are not nearly as bad. It’s as if the yellow jackets, when met with “blue jean” resistance, really got pissed off. I stepped into a nest while using my weed eater near the back door of the house one morning. Luckily, I saw the cloud of “little bastards” erupt from their hole and I ran for the safety of our closed in back porch. Yelling, slapping and running, somehow all at the same time, I found my “beloved” slamming the door in my face and screaming, “Don’t bring them in here!” Thank you SOOOOOO very much.

As I related in an earlier story I am not the only one to run afoul of the “little bastards.” One of my goats stuck his nose into a yellow jacket’s nest and received numerous stings to the head and neck. With a leather collar around his neck, the swelling had nowhere to go causing his head to swell, and swell and swell. By the time I rescued him, his head was the size of a basketball and I was afraid he would begin to chock if I did not release him from the collar. As soon as I cut through the collar his head began to “deflate” and I worried that he would die when the poison hit his heart. He didn’t and just went back to eating. Goats are simple creatures…unlike my wife who would have let the goat come in regardless of how many yellow jackets followed him. It’s good to know where I rate on her hierarchy of animals that she loves.

Few things that I hate about the South? I just got my first yellow jacket sting of the summer. Luckily, just one and I have found their little underground lair of pain. I will make the “little bastards” pay when night time falls. I will come calling with my little can of “payback” and for a brief time there will be one less thing to hate about the South.

This is an excerpt from the book “Through the Front Gate”
Don Miller has also written other books which may be purchased or downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

OLD MULES AND SUCH

On a stop at a nearby organic farm to grab some local honey I noticed a mule standing forlornly at the fence that prevented him from joining me at the produce stand. It was quite apparent that had he been allowed, the mule would have been standing next to me as I looked for local, wildflower honey. He was the first mule I had seen in…well…since Methuselah was a mere slip of a child. He was a beauty…for a mule. A dark reddish brown color that lightened from the backbone down his body until you got to his legs which were almost black. Huge dark brown ears twisted and turned until I addressed him, “Hey Buddy!” His ears focused intently on me. He was not the only livestock contained within the small pasture, there were free range chickens, ducks, goats and even a couple of burros so at least he wasn’t lonely. I can’t remember the last time I saw a mule harnessed to a plow. Once again, a random thought sparks random memories.

When I was like young Methuselah, a mere slip of a child and later as a young man, I rode a mule. My Uncle Bill and my Cousin Buck kept horses and a mule. I was not sure why they kept the mule. Their horses were used for riding not plowing. Uncle Bill’s huge, to me at least, Farmall Super C was used for plowing. The mule just stood around a lot until I was deemed old enough to go riding with the cousins. “Low man on the totem pole” which I have found to be historically incorrect, the saying should have been “high man on the totem pole” …anyway I was the youngest of four cousins therefore I got to ride the mule.

Mules are different from horses despite being the offspring of a horse and a donkey. The first difference I noticed was in the saddle Buck put on “Jack.” It was a US Army saddle purchased as surplus and dated from before World War Two. I was young, not stupid, and noticed the saddle was made in two distinct parts with a gap in the middle. “Buck, why is my saddle different?” The answer was, “You’ll find out.” I did. Mules have very prominent backbones. The gap in the saddle allowed your “danglies” to ride comfortably over their backbone’s ridge. Comfortably is a subjective term, especially when riding a mule.

A dissimilarity between a horse and a mule is the way they walk and run. Mules have slender legs and small hooves compared to a horse and after saying “Giddy-up” I wondered if their knees were on backwards. They walked with a stiff-legged gate. When urged into a gallop, oh my, I thought my back was going to break. There was no becoming “one with the mule” and my “danglies?” Ohhhhhhhhhh, mules run stiff-legged too!

Having researched “stubborn as a mule”, I have found mules are anything but stubborn. In fact, they have been found to be much more adaptive and intelligent than the sum of their parts, horses and donkeys. Well…Jack must have been “special” or at the very least, contrary. Jack once tried to drown me as I allowed him to drink from a pond. Another time Jack decided he was going to go back to the barn despite my best efforts to turn him. Lastly, being a hybrid and unable to reproduce did not stop him from mounting Buck’s Paint …with Buck still in the saddle. “Love will find a way” I guess.

As I admired the mule, its owner came over and we reminisced about my riding and his plowing with mules. He told a story about the last time he had seen a mule being plowed. Turns out he had converted to mechanical plowing like the rest of the world.
On a lonely river bottom road, he paused his pickup truck to watch an old man plowing behind a big brown “Missouri” mule. He noticed the man stop, walk up behind the mule and run his finger up under the mule’s tail before rubbing his finger across his lips. My new friend did not believe what he had seen until the old man did it again.

Unable to contain himself, he approached the farmer and after introducing himself, admitted to confusion over what the old farmer had done.

The old farmer explained simply, “Chapped lips.”

Still confused my new friend queried, “Mule poo helps with chapped lips?”

The old gentleman clarified saying, “Nah, just keeps me from lickin’ em.”

Got me! Just like riding old Jack down memory lane.

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

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

A FLOOD OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS

We are fifteen feet or more above the closest water, a shallow stream, but we are drowning. I had an idea how the victims of sinking ships felt as they fought their way to the upper decks, in the dark as a river of water hit them in the face. According to legend, a ragtime band played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the Titanic went to her watery grave taking some fifteen hundred passengers and crew with her. The good news is that there were only two of us drowning. The bad? Linda Gail was singing hymns and one could have been “Nearer My God to Thee.” (Actually the band probably played “Autumn” but that doesn’t fit my story does it?)

Over our thirty years living at “Hemlock Hills” we’ve lived through bad weather and managed to dodge a few bullets…or tornadoes. Not long after we moved in a twister took down a huge pecan tree which in turn took down several black walnuts along with the power to the house. I had noted how green the clouds were and how calm, yet oppressive the air felt right before Linda Gail and I, along with three terrified puppies, made for the “perceived” safety of our hallway. The pecan landed close enough to the house that we just stood outside shaking our heads in disbelief. A few days later an ancient black walnut weakened by the storm fell into Highway 11 taking our power again before blocking the highway for several hours. We sold the downed trees for the cost of removal to a self-employed contractor friend who, a couple of years later, sold them back to us in the form of flooring, cabinets and countertops when he was hired to renovate. Funny, I remember paying a lot more for the wood we got back than he paid for the trees originally.

This is an excerpt from the story “A FLOOD OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS” found in my new book, THROUGH THE FRONT GATE. You may purchase in Kindle form at https://goo.gl/4rBPhW or in soft cover at https://goo.gl/Yu3vRm