Of Birds, Grandmothers, and Eisenhower Republicans

Continuing to write chapters in my head from the unwritten book entitled Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes, I find myself meandering along a twisting path and disappearing into Alice’s rabbit hole, again. Maybe I’ll encounter a hookah smoking caterpillar. The Mad Hatter has already taken up residence in my head.  A bit of hashish might calm him.

It is a dark, raw, and dreary day here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  It is the kind of day rabbits and wild pigs should be tucked safely in their burrows, huddled together for warmth.  I am warm, sitting in front of a fire, watching my birds gorge themselves on sunflower seeds and suet. You can add a squirrel or five and an occasional “Chester”, a name my wife has given to the ground squirrels that seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate.  All are eating me out of house and home.

I’m drawn to thoughts and mental photos of my Grandmother’s bird feeders.  I don’t remember squirrels in attendance but there were plenty of little chipmunks around. 

My grandmother would be proud of my collection of avian acrobats.  Cardinals, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, and sparrows have been joined by gold and purple finches, their spring mating colors beginning to show. Cardinals are pretty but they are mean.  They take nothing off anyone, not even the squirrels.

Below the feeders, towhees, robins, doves, and a brown thrasher dig, waiting on “manna” from heaven to fall from the feeders.  Same with two chipmunks.  Where are the mockingbirds and catbirds?  I really must get a platform feeder with some fruit offerings.

On clear days my Red Tails cavort, riding the thermals and gleefully whistling to each other. But it is not a clear day.

Yeah, Nannie would be proud…until the impeachment trial lit up on my TV screen.  I doubt she would have any pride in anything I watched and I should have stayed tuned into the chipmunks.

My grandmother was an Eisenhower Republican.   Maybe I am too…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I know that Eisenhower nor Kennedy would recognize their respective parties today.  I also know the transition didn’t occur over night. It has been a treacherous highway we have traveled and appear to continue to travel.

As I researched “Ike’s” childhood and early life, I realized how similar my grandparent’s forefathers and mothers resembled the President’s.  Their forbearers, German, Scot, Irish and English, probably arrived in the New World via Pennsylvania like my forbearers.  My forefathers and mothers headed South through Virginia, North Carolina, to finally South Carolina and a hard scrabble existence as farmers, drummers, and cabinet makers. There might have been a huckster or two among them.

President Eisenhower’s forbearers headed to Virginia and then west to Kansas, south to Texas and then back to Kansas.  His family lived in poverty as hard times struck the mid-west.  Ike worked on a dairy along with his brother, helping his mechanic and dairy farming father scratch out a living.  There are a lot of similarities when faced with a hard scrabble life.

When I was a child, my grandmother forced me to read.  My grandmother’s tutelage was fully supported and enforced by my parents.  Sometimes quite painfully enforced. During summer vacations I would be led to meet the county bookmobile and forced to pick books to read.  It was decided I would pick three, all to be completed before the ancient, converted school bus returned two weeks later. Over time I found myself picking four or five books on my own.

I remember one choice chronicled Eisenhower’s early life.  How he almost lost his leg to a freak football injury.  Refusing an amputation, he somehow survived and grew up to be General Eisenhower of WW II fame and the Thirty-Fourth President of the United States.

He was a heroic figure and, despite the warts we all have, I understand my grandmother’s adulation. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and with twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy to see missteps as he dealt with the recovery from WW II, the escalating Cold War, and building Civil Rights movement.   It should also be easy to see his positives. Despite not being able to stop nuclear proliferation, it was one of the most prosperous times both economically, scientifically, and artistically.  In some ways it might have spoiled us.

The first election I remember was the 1956 election, Eisenhower running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson.  It had no significance for a six year old. I was still playing cowboys and outlaws. I remember it because my grandmother seemed to be concerned.  She left her radio on all night awaiting the election news.  From my bed in the corner of her room I remember her whispered prayers. She shouldn’t have been worried.  It was a landslide for Eisenhower.

Despite the duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack I experienced as a child, I can’t help but wish an Eisenhower incarnation had been elected to deal with Covid-19 and the social unrest we are experiencing.  I liked his attitude of diplomacy first. I know today’s responses would have been different and so would the outcomes. 

I remember or studied later his responses to Polio and the Salk vaccine, Sputnik, McCarthy, fireworks in the Middle East and Asia, carrying out Truman’s executive orders desegregating the military, an interstate system…even if was built to move the military rapidly from one place to another.  A response might have been the wrong one in hindsight, but there was a response, usually with diplomacy first. There was no inactivity. 

Then maybe I’m deluding myself.  Is it the differences in Presidents or the differences in Americans? 

I still think I’ll characterize myself as an Eisenhower Republican…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I just heard a squirrel land on my bird feeder…or was it my grandmother spinning in her grave.  She was not a Kennedy fan, at least at first. He was a rich, Massachusetts’s Catholic after all.  Unlike Eisenhower, my grandmother grew up in a world so different from Kennedy’s it might well have been another planet. I doubt she was a Nixon fan either as history played out.

Oh well. The rain has slacked off and my bird feeders need to be refilled. It is another day and there will be no trial coverage. Since there is a chance of winter weather on Tuesday my grandmother would agree that I need to make sure my wood stores are replenished. “Yes ma’am, I’ll get those bird feeders first.”

For more pig trails and rabbit holes https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3oAjNYooKiVzCcXTBVNofhw-T3ZwvoWeD90Y-Uv_KI1Y8lpyLBOC-HK2M

The image of Eisenhower is from Wardlaw Museum, University of St. Andrews.

“If I had known…”

If I had known last March it would be the last time I sat in a restaurant for nearly eight months, I would have ordered dessert.“ Unknown

I don’t know who is responsible for the quote, I just know it wasn’t me. I also know what I didn’t know then.  Despite all of the misinformation floating around, no truer words have been spoken.  When there is a next time, I will order dessert.

I didn’t buy the President’s spiel that COVID-19 would be over in the heat of summer, but I also didn’t buy I would be contemplating a Thanksgiving without friends and family…and then there is Christmas.

None of my aunt’s dressing and butterscotch pies.  None of my brother’s newest culinary creation or a cousin’s broccoli casserole.  None of Bob’s ham or turkey.  No visiting with the girl cousins who are more like sisters. At least I will have my bride’s tomato pies all to myself and will hear no one ask, “What about that election.”

No visit with Ashley, Justin, and the grands.  No tall tales, no hearty laughter, no catching up.  Instead I’ll burn up the phone lines, I guess., and maybe a Cornish hen on the grill. 

No post dinner nap while pretending to watch the Cowboys take it on the chin again.

Next time and until the Lord takes me home, I will always order dessert.

The date in early March eludes me.  I know it was before my brother’s birthday on the thirteenth because we didn’t celebrate it…or mine…or anyone else’s.   Maybe it was late February….

There have been few celebrations over the past seven months. I guess not being one of the two hundred and sixty some odd fatalities is celebration enough.  For some reason, my thought has a “hurray for me and the hell with everyone else” ring that is not intended.

I was at a BBQ joint with my bride on that day in February or March.  A large pulled pork BBQ sandwich with ‘yaller’ sauce, mayonnaise cabbage slaw, and a couple of orders of deeply fried, battered okra sat before me.

All were washed down with a Damn Yankee, Narragansett beer or three.  Maybe fifteen hundred calories…not counting the calories from cleaning up my bride’s plate…so the dessert was declined.  I will never allow that to happen again.  I will always order dessert. Maybe I’ll eat dessert first.

I’ve learned several things about myself as I’ve sat in my self-imposed isolation wishing for BBQ and dessert…wishing for Aunt Joyce’s dressing…wishing the kids were about….wishing for Thanksgiving celebrations.

I’ve learned I really do like being around my wife, otherwise we would have killed each other by now.  I realize the jury is still out from her perspective…and I’ve hidden all of the weapons just to make sure.

After seven months my hair still hasn’t grown long enough to put into a ponytail.   It is more of a ragged mullet. MacGyver would not covet it. Could be due to the absence of hair I began with.  I am going to keep trying.  Maybe I’ll start an “inverted Mohawk” ponytail/mullet movement for hippies in their seventies.

I have learned boredom is no motivation to getting things done. All those jobs that need to be completed, I can’t even get them started.  I just let more things go. ..more things that need to be done.

I haven’t even found new and more interesting ways to stay bored.  How many reruns of NCIS New Orleans or Star Trek The Next Generation can I watch? Is The Hallmark Channel next?

I’ve found rips to the grocery store to be scary, even double or triple masked up…considering the idiots ignoring masking rules along with the directional arrows.   It’s a political statement? Possibly more dangerous than a simultaneous four-way stop or the new traffic circle built next to Wally World in TR. I do have to eat but I’ll never use the traffic circle.

I’ve learned I’m not the hermit I thought I was.  I find myself chatting with frogs, snakes, turtles, ground squirrels, and birds…even the little snail that somehow found it’s way onto my shower curtain.  I don’t think he is listening. I would talk to my bride but then she might involve me in a conversation where she talks and I listen.

When the wildlife is not around, I talk to myself. Unfortunately, with cold weather ahead, the frogs, turtles, and snakes will be self-isolating and I’ve found I don’t make much sense even to myself.  Just ask the snail on the shower curtain…I think I may have talked him to death.

As I contemplate Thanksgiving, if I am fortunate to sit down at an indoor restaurant table again, I will order dessert….maybe two. 

If you are throwing caution to the wind and visiting family and friends this 2020 Thanksgiving, first of all, be careful, wear your mask and social distance. It is not a political statement, it is an intelligence statement.

Secondly, eat that extra bowl of banana puddin’ or German Chocolate cake.  Put an extra dab of cranberry salad on your turkey sandwich and maybe a wedge of dressing.  Enjoy the sweet potato casserole or pumpkin pie. Do it for me but if you have Bourbon pecan cheesecake…don’t tell me, it might break my heart. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

***

Don Miller writes in a variety of genres. He will release his newest historical novel, Long Ride to Paradise, after Thanksgiving, The tale takes place during the historical period known as Reconstruction.

Don’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1iraxbHHzYu2km-B4PsMVtsrBn9_NwN3OCmVKqxkn3Kq9qOpHWGOUhW9w.

The image is of Bourbon Pecan Cheesecake and I am drooling. Recipe at www.tastykitchen.com

Because I Can

 

I always hated to run.  Some of you will remember…timed forties, perfect plays, home to first, home to second, etc., fitness tests in PE….  All my running was athletically related and involved sprinting.  I was never very fast…never very athletic.  Snail like but I never left a yucky trail.  Football, baseball…I didn’t do basketball.  Couldn’t get that huge ball in that tiny ring and there is a bunch of running in basketball…minute drills?  No way.

Hundred-yard sprints to end the practice are not fun.  They were never intended to be fun.  Show me someone who enjoys hundred-yard sprints and I’ll show you a masochist…or someone who pulls wings off flies and plots murder.

I found myself coaching in addition to teaching in the early Seventies and learned that, deep down in my soul, I was a sadist.  Marquis de Sade with a whistle and a clipboard.  “Men, we’re going to do all the forty-yard sprints in the world…plus one.”  “You’re going to run forever…too long? Subtract a minute.”  I didn’t do it in a sadistic way per se, sadism was not the goal.  I tried to apply reason, never running for the sake of running and interjecting humor into my expectations. Still, deep down…there was sadistic joy seeing my charges puke at my feet. “Look! Eggs!  Anyone hungry?”

In the late Sixties, the jogging craze hit.  By the mid-Seventies, I had joined it.  Not that I was particularly interested in the health effects of jogging…I was in my mid-twenties and indestructible.  I was more likely to get my exercise skipping “the light fandango” with a beer in my hand.

I jogged not to get into shape, I was more interested in the good looking, long-legged brunette, teaching peer who wore those minuscule Seventies running shorts over her tight and athletic…you get the idea.  I tried to run just hard enough to keep her backside clearly in view.  I chased her but I never caught her.

Despite her external motivation, I had no self-motivation and was sporadic with exercise until a heart attack dropped me in my tracks on my fifty-sixth birthday.  Great birthday present.  A blockage and a stent to correct it and save my life, three more stents a month later, six weeks of rehab and instructions on what to eat…cardboard slathered in cow poop.  Nothing from the Southern-fried food groups.  I learned to eliminate salt on everything except eggs and grits.  I even learned to tolerate oatmeal…with enough fruit and yogurt covering it.

On my days off from rehab I walked.  While I enjoyed walking, the effort just didn’t seem to be enough.  I was from the “No Pain, No Gain” era.  Exercise should have an element of pain involved.  Walking was too easy, and I began to run, albeit slowly.  Underused lungs and quads screaming, maybe I was a masochist.  I don’t pull wings off flies and the only murders I plot are in the books I write.

Five months after my heart attack I ran my first 5K.  After six months I had dropped sixty-plus pounds.  I was my cardiologist’s dream patient.

Only Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles would ever look at me and say, “He looks like a runner.”  Stockily built for comfort not speed, it is best to line me up with a stationary object to make sure I am moving.  But I was a runner!  I ran races to prove I was and to provide motivation.  I needed goals other than beer and pizza after the race and fit women in athletic wear to run behind during it.

I still hated running but it became a mind over matter endeavor.  I found it cleared my head and correctly put together the jigsaw puzzle that was my mind. I did it because I could.  I did it because I was still alive.

5Ks, 10Ks, Half Marathons…I put a marathon on my bucket list and signed up for one in three months’ time.  I didn’t win any races, but I always finished in the top half of my age group.  I was proud.  I was running against myself and the grim reaper in my rearview mirror.

Four years ago there was a misstep and the pain that came with it…physical and mental pain.  For two years I ran, I limped, I quit running to walk…then started the process over only to be hobbled again.  I finally went to the doctor.  A torn meniscus and early-onset osteoarthritis.  Bone rubs on bone in both knees and the orthopedic surgeon shook his head, “Not soon but if you live long enough there will be a knee replacement in your future.”  I walked and I walked but I couldn’t jog.  For two years I’ve walked or ridden my bike.  I wouldn’t do the marathon.

As much as I hated running, I missed running…still miss it…but I don’t miss it as much as I did Monday.  Why? Because on Tuesday…I ran.  I blame it on the song “Domino” by Van Morrison.  When I heard it over my earbuds, I wanted to dance but my dancing is worse than my running and I was on a public road.  Rather than having people think I was having a Joe Cocker ‘fit’, I took off jogging. Slowly, smartly and with no pain on the following day.  The day after, I ran again.  Alternating jogging and walking from mailbox to mailbox or driveway to driveway my lungs screamed but my knees didn’t.

Probably a mile’s worth of jogging split up over three and a half miles.  It is a start…it is running.

Both days, I argued with myself the whole time.  I was careful but apprehensive, waiting for a familiar twinge of pain.  Waiting for the throbbing ache when I finished.  Promising myself that if I felt an odd twinge or the throb I would quit and chase the foolish thoughts from my head.

Why am I taking the chance?  My “firetrucking” knees hurt when I don’t run.  They hurt when I sit around for too long…but they didn’t hurt any worse than they did after a four-mile fitness walk.  Still, why I wondered?

“Because I can,” I told myself.  Because I want to.  Because it allows an old man to dream a bit…to remember.    There will be no marathon…maybe, not even a 5K.  I may have to be satisfied with a mile jog, but it doesn’t matter.  I run because I can.  I run because it makes me happy.

Addendum

I awoke this morning with a twinge…of sciatica.  My knees are fine. ‘Iffin’ it ain’t one thing it is a thousand others.  I’ll test myself with a short walk and stretch.  If all feels good I run/walk a bit on a nice soft athletic field.  I’ll be smart…maybe.

The line ‘skipping the light fandango’ comes from the Poco Harum song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.  The complete lyric was, “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor.”

…And since I’m on music and running kicks, get up, dance and enjoy the day.

Don Miller is a multi-genre writer and can be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from Canva

“They Paved Paradise….”

 

I have been asked to speak to a historical group at the “active-adult retirement community” now located where my childhood home once stood.  The home of my youth, a brick veneered cottage located between two hills.  A small house but a house full of memories that spilled out along the river road that ran beside it and up the hillsides flanking it.  A homesite now covered by pavement, retirement homes and businesses.

I’m speaking about the history that I lived as a youth, the South in the Fifties and Sixties.  As I have prepared for my speaking engagement, my thoughts and dreams have drifted to those “thrilling days of yesteryear.  Hi-yo Silver, Away!”

My thoughts run through a gazillion emotions and memories.  They flow faster than I rode my red Schwinn Torpedo through the ruts cutting the old river road leading to the Catawba and my youthful adventures.

It has been fifty years since I left the home of my youth, but recently I find myself thinking more and more about people I grew up with, family and friends, and a place that no longer exists anywhere other than my mind.

Mental images of mixed forests of pines and hardwood cut by streams inhabited by crawdads, frogs, turtles, and salamanders.  Fields of tall corn, cotton bolls bursting white in the fall or thick hay and pastures.  I remember ponds loaded with bluegill and largemouth.  Mostly, I remember a dirt road that led to great adventures concocted by a youthful imagination.

I only spent eighteen years living there before leaving for college and a lifetime of work.  Over time, I became a visitor to my childhood home…until it was replaced by progress.

Yet…I remember those first eighteen years with much greater clarity than what I did yesterday.  No matter how I age, my thoughts wind back…back to the river road where I grew up.

I think of home and smile but find it depressing to return.  The cotton, corn, and hayfields of my youth have been replaced by Walmart, QT, Publix, countless other businesses and miles and miles of parking lots.  Joni Mitchell is singing in my head, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”  It was a paradise, I just wish I had realized it at the time.

Many of the lakes I fished have been filled in or have signs prohibiting the fun I had.  The forests I wandered have been cut down and the river road sparking my youthful imagination supplanted by the perceived modern headway in the form of homes built for the youthful, over fifty-five crowd.

There are some landmarks I recognize, but a library and a small strip mall now sit where a home full of memories once sat.  I do find solace that a library has replaced it.  Both my grandmother and father were voracious readers…as am I because of them.

I have now lived on my little piece of heaven for over thirty years and it reminds me of my youthful residence…except it is hillier.  It’s green in the spring and summer, cut with streams loaded with trout and nearby ponds and lakes are filled with panfish and bass.  Sounds like I need to go fishing.  There is wildlife galore and plenty of characters to study or ignore.

My old farmhouse is also filled with memories that flow out to the hillside it sits on…hopefully with more memories to come.  My adventures are no longer youthful…but I still have adventures…I just don’t run from them as fast.

It is easy to draw connections between my present home and my home from yesteryear.  I wonder?  My daughter will be my present age in thirty-three years.  I wonder what paradise will look like to her?

For more of Don Miller’s wanderings https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from Pinterest.

END OF THE LINE…AGAIN

I never intended to be that kind of teacher. You have had them. Angry all the time, lips turned downward or run out in front of their noses. Sour on life or why life was picking on them. As refreshing as a glassful of salted, warm dill pickle juice. Hanging on by their toenails, not for the sake of the kids they teach but for the paycheck they receive. I stepped away from corrupting young minds three years ago and coaching a year later for that very reason. It was my third “failed” attempt at retirement. Better to retire a year too early than a year too late and I could hear the sucking sounds of my patience reserves going dry. It was hammered home five or six months later when a teaching peer begged me to take her classes during her maternity leave…I am a sucker for a pretty face, even a pregnant one. It didn’t hurt that the district teacher of the year was doing the begging. Nine weeks later I found myself hanging on by my toenails not to be THAT KIND of teacher as we broke for Christmas and she returned.

Three months ago, she called again…pregnant again…begging again…and I’m still a sucker for a pretty face. I might have been a bit bored too. She might have played to my vanity. This wonderful, award-winning teacher wants LITTLE OLE ME to take her classes? I am unworthy…no really…I am unworthy. Yep, I’d say she played to my vanity. I also needed new tires for the truck and a hydraulic cylinder for my tractor. I didn’t need to work to pay for them, I could have written a check from savings. Next time I will. Did I mention it was half-time? Every other day, always with a long weekend. Twenty-two or three teaching dates. I could do this standing on my head…maybe.

I’m a two-day week away from the joyous end. One day is a half day. One and one-half days from heaven. Walking into a classroom hasn’t been any harder. The kids are no more difficult today than ten years ago. School staff and administration have been wonderful. It’s just me. The tank has run dry. I can’t do the job anymore as I once did. I have hit the end of my line.

Sciatica and the shingles haven’t helped. Limping into classes the first week of my tenure with sciatica, my scalp crawling and face blistering from shingles the last three weeks. No that’s just an excuse. A DAMN GOOD EXCUSE, but an excuse none the less. There comes a time when it is over and a wise man will recognize it. My friend Hawk, sometimes a wise man, has said often. “We can’t do this forever. I’m not going from an athletic field to the grave.” How many times have you retired and gone back Mr. “Do as I say and not as I do?” I have not been a wise man but I have gained wisdom. Who says an old dog…ahhhhhhhhh!

I had a wonderful puppy. She was a throw away that just appeared outside the front gate one day waiting for my beloved to feed her. Miss Sassy decided not to leave…until thirteen years later. Sick and old, she knew her time was near and went off to die alone. I like to think she didn’t want to burden us with the memories of her death. I want to be like her. I don’t want to keep hanging on…and to be clear, I’m just talking about my career…today.

I am thinking about the kids. Some are making me smile. I just didn’t have the time to develop the relationships except for a handful. Three or four from each class. It’s about the relationships. South Carolina history is important. So is culture and geography. It’s just not as important as the relationships for an old fart like me.

Anne, thanks for the opportunity but between us, don’t get pregnant again. Tie a knot, I’m not falling for it again, or if you do get pregnant, I’m not falling for it again.

To quote the Traveling Wilburys,
“Maybe somewhere down the road aways (end of the line)
You’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days (end of the line)
Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays (end of the line)
Purple haze.” It is the end of that line.

“Looking for answers to questions that bothered him so.” Find more musings and other reflections at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP