Friday, December 29, 2006

Home for the Bees [CCR]

Mom and Dad always kept farm animals around, partly for our education and partly to fulfill some family needs. Dad gathered some old logs and built a barn in a small pasture behind our house. We also had a lower pasture where the animals could graze. There are many tales I can share about the cows, horses, and goats. But the one critter that comes to mind today are the bees.

Throughout my childhood our family had an interest in bee keeping. Mom told me that Dad acquired a hive of bees last summer who decided to move into one of the old bee hives on their own accord. Dad had given up bee keeping for some years now, but I don’t think the bees have given up on Dad. That was the assumption until Dad checked the new residents out for their share of honey. The bees had honey in their own section but had chosen to not fill the sections of the hive where Dad collects the honey. They have taken advantage of a free residence.

As a child I can remember the family gathering at Granddaddy Daily’s house for robbing a bee tree. Wild bees built their homes in the hollow areas of trees. Someone in the family might see some bees gathering the pollen for their day’s work and they followed the bees back to their hive in the tree. You might think it cruel, but those bees could find a new home. The family’s intention was to cut the tree and rob the honey. In these cases the stance of the bees towards the robbers was purely random. Sometimes we came upon bees who forfeited their collection easily. Other times we had a rather interesting fight for the honey. The brave entered the battle with only a smoker and a loose fitting bee hat. The others taped down and sealed themselves from the possible onslaught. After the tree came down and the honey gathered, the wives often treated the wounded from the battle and processed the loot.

Dad decided to build bee hives at the house that were both accommodating for the bees permitted the humans to collect a share for their good. Thus began a working relationship that lasted many years at our home. At first the hives sat in the yard near the house. My sister and I suffered the occasional bee sting when we unintentionally interrupted the workers from their chores. Later Dad moved the hives down to the lower pasture which provided a safer distance for the humans. However, it took only one bump of a hive by one pony for the animals to quickly discover their new associates in the pasture. The animals gained a new respect for each other and shared territories for the remainder of my childhood years.

In the summer Dad would dress up in his bee visitation attire and carry the old smoker down to the hives to gather our share of the honey which we considered the rent. He lost his help from me as a small child when a bee helped us discover that cotton gloves weren’t the best choice for bee visitations. Dad would bring the racks of golden honey to the house where Mom used knives to cut away the liquid filled comb. In our house honey comb was considered a luxury, but many people who came by to get a quart of our harvest often preferred the honey strained from the comb. And thus we replenished our supply of sweetener for another year.

Dad became quite renown in bee keeping and often received a call to retrieve a rogue swarm from an unwelcome location. Our collection of hives grew to over a dozen at one time. But as my sister and I left for our own adventures Dad slowly retired from the hobby. It seems his new tenants want Dad to revive the sideline. I have a small piece of advice for the new residents. If they wish to retain the nice quarters and Dad’s watchful protection they should pay the rent. Once again the house will be buzzing with the commotion of collecting sweet golden honey.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Family Holiday [CCR]

Christmas automatically triggers memories of families and hopefully your memories glow brightly to cheer up our short winter nights. I often recall the many family gatherings around the glittering Christmas trees and the joy of us children excited over the packages under the tree. Looking back I don’t think the contents of the package mattered. Being included in family mattered most. Each generation initiates traditions merged from past traditions. It is one of the many mystical dynamics of marriage.

At the Smith house we carried a tradition seen in many families. The cousins drew names, mostly with the help of our parents, several weeks before Christmas. I don’t think we really knew who had our name until we gathered with the packages piled under the tree. We gleefully scrutinized every wrapped surprise to the extent allowed by our parents. Who had time for dinner? We were ready to peel the wrappings away and see what treasure lay inside.

At my eighth Christmas I remember the grandchildren all got cameras in the shape of Mickey Mouse. The nose was the lens and one ear was the trigger. It was a simple device without all the modern frills, but it was luxurious for us. I clearly remember Mrs. Lyle, my third grade teacher, taking us Easter Egg hunting the next spring and me carrying Mickey along for pictures. Sadly I don’t remember what happened to my Mickey. But I have a picture of my cousin Pam and I sitting on the couch with our cameras. At our recent Thanksgiving gathering in Memphis Pam told me she still had her camera.

My cousin Sherry and I had a special bond that lasted through the years. Every Christmas or birthday, whether it was hers or mine, we often got the same present. I remember the plastic fire trucks that provided hours of entertainment before bedtime. I stayed at Grandmother’s house that night so we had time to check out our new trucks. We were very young and the details escape me with exception to the fateful morning after. In our excitement the fire trucks were neglectfully parked on the front porch. Granddaddy’s dog made sure our new shiny trucks wouldn’t bring any harm to the house and thus our fire fighting adventures lasted less than a day.

Today our Smith family traditions are somewhat reminiscent of those days at Granddaddy’s house. We still gather as a family each year at one of our homes or other locations. The get-together has moved back to Thanksgiving as each of my aunt and uncles are now grandparents with their own traditional celebrations. Fellowship and honoring those we miss are still significant. We exchange ornaments for our Christmas trees to feed our memories each holiday season. This year Uncle Travis wore Granddaddy’s special Christmas sweater to facilitate the loving atmosphere that once smothered that old green house each year.

It is my wish that you have a most joyous holiday season no matter how you celebrate the many festivities. Menorahs will be lit. Trees will twinkle. Fireworks will fill the sky. But most importantly families will gather, recreate the bonds that make possible the trek into the new year, and celebrate the foundations of our unique traditions.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Starting A Business [CCR]

The spirit of entrepreneurship starts in the mind of a child. So it was with my cousin Tim and me. Our bold undertaking has rarely been disclosed, but it provided a lesson in both profit and risk. The Alabama roadsides were a treasure for young boys to make a little money if they had the time and energy. With the deposit on cola bottles at a nickel the profit potential was fairly decent.

Granddaddy Daily had a real nice wagon he used to haul the wood from the shed to the box beside the front door. Tim and I borrowed it one day when Granddaddy was gone and Grandmother was busy in the house. Our adventure took us along the road now known as Daily Loop to the Mt. Mills Road. We followed the Mt. Mills Road to the Davis’s store. That little store had just about anything you needed in the tradition of a rural country store. By the time we reached the store Tim and I had quite a number of bottles to exchange for nickels. In fact we bought a snack and a drink for each of us with money left for our investment. So we looked around and found our inspiration. Gulfwax paraffin would make wonderful candles. All we had to do was find a wick and melt the paraffin. So we bought a block.

We ventured back to Granddaddy’s house construing our plans for the candles while we consumed our snacks. It was a beautiful clear day for walking and planning.

Back at the house we gathered sticks and it wasn’t long before we had a small fire blazing beneath the giant trees in front of Granddaddy’s shed. We found an old cooking pot in the wash shed and brought it around to the fire. Surely we could melt the paraffin first before worrying about finding the wick. It was simple as melting butter. We propped the pot on some rocks near the fire and plopped in the paraffin. The wax oozed out into a puddle that allowed the block to glide along the bottom. Everything was proceeding as planned.

In a few minutes we found ourselves with a pot full of liquid candle material ready to go. Just before we went for the wick the surprise happened. Tim and I learned our first chemistry lesson when the paraffin began to blaze. Grandmother had no knowledge of our panic as we ran for the water bucket Granddaddy kept for the dogs. We had to stop this blaze before our adventure was discovered and future plans might be stymied. It was just about the time the water left the bucket that we actually realized our next chemistry lesson.

Alas it was too late as we both ran. Out of the pan came flaming paraffin shooting up into the trees. I remember looking up and seeing the fiery splash singe the leaves into glowing red embers. It was by pure luck that neither of us got burned. And we didn’t even burn down the shed. The flash fire was over and what was left behind was easy to quell with exception to the racing heartbeats. We quickly cleaned up the area to the point one could only know we had built a small fire. Grandmother never stopped her work in the kitchen. Granddaddy came home from his trip. I don’t think they looked up in the trees by the shed. To our knowledge they never knew of our escapade and we continued to our next adventure which will be a subject for another day.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Old Blue [CCR]

Winter continues to overtake fall here in Ohio. It was wishful thinking to ask for a few more warm days. So now I am taking a look at our vehicles to see what is left to prepare for the “frozen tundra” to come. Have you looked under the hood lately? I actually wonder if there is some sort of plan to build in complexity or if what I see is a haphazard approach to improvement. I never imagined having to place a car on a lift just to change the spark plugs.

Life was a little more simple back home. I still catch myself telling people a tune up consists of “points and plugs.” Younger folks just sort of give me a blank stare. It was just a little easier to check how things were working on our old Chevy truck. At least Dad made it look that way. I seriously doubt you could still find a six volt battery for the truck, but it was sufficient for our truck. Most people today would turn the ignition key waiting for the starter to turn the engine, not realizing they need to press the foot switch. Sometimes you had to let off the gas to let the wipers catch up since they ran off the vehicle vacuum system. But these “outdated” features still left us with a truck that was highly reliable and fulfilled our needs for many years, including my lessons in driving.

Even before I got to sit behind the wheel with the engine running, that truck provided hours of driving entertainment while sitting idle in our back yard. I could barely reach the pedals, which may have attributed to my safe play, but I had watched Dad and followed every queue on gear shifting. Then Dad began to let me shift the gears while he drove. Thus my lessons in driving began.

We kept both ponies and some cows which meant we had to provide food during the winter. Some of the local farmers sold Dad hay bales which we picked up while they were baling and others let us pick up the scrap corn behind the corn pickers. The farmers were always kind to us. Obviously Dad had to load the bales, so I finally got my turn behind the wheel of the truck. Dad would provide the instructions as I slowly weaved through the fields while he loaded the truck.

The old truck also carried our wood for heating our home during cold weather. I can remember traveling out to Mr. Buddy Malone’s field to gather wood. The old truck always carried its load, even though sometimes the final hill required two tries with a “running go” to get to the top. I don’t remember not making it up the hill.

Transportation for hunting trips was another duty for the old truck. Dad knew just about every dirt road in the county, something he learned from Granddaddy and I wish I had learned. They knew the name of every ridge and old home place. I can remember the day Dad let me behind the wheel. We were passing the old road near Robert Stanfield’s house. He was my great uncle. I was so proud to be driving the truck that I was looking out the side window grinning and almost ran over a whole line of pine trees. Dad’s careful watch saved me the potential endless embarrassment.

A couple of weeks ago Mom mentioned the old blue truck and how buying that used truck was a big event. I don’t remember any doubts about the vehicle. In a small boy’s mind nothing was grander. I can easily say it was the most important vehicle in my life. Dad ended up selling the truck to buy a camper and then trading the camper for a Jeep which played another important role in my life. Now I must go and find somebody who can diagnose my computerized ignition system. I guess I shouldn’t complain since computers and robotics have put food on my table for over twenty years. But I miss that old blue truck. It represented a simple life with few worries and many adventures of a growing Alabama boy.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Memories In the Air [CCR]

Snow is falling outside and it seems winter has decided to make itself known even before its official day of entry over a month away. After we first moved to Ohio the boys were excited about the opportunity to see a lot of snow. That excitement faded away after their second round of shoveling the driveway. As a child I would have been excited at this point because we probably wouldn’t have school tomorrow. But here the snow plows insure the children will not miss out on school.

During cold weather my mind turns to the warm days back home in Alabama. Tonight I remember my Grandmother Smith’s yards. Grandmother Smith always had flowers growing in the spring. Their driveway split just before the house with one lane leading to the front yard and one lane leading through the shade of the trees to the back yard. Each year a large group of colorful tulips grew along that lane. Those tulips marked the beginning of spring for me. And it also often held a secure position for Easter eggs.

Spring also meant the shade trees on the North side of Grandmother’s house began to grow their leaves to provide shade for the summer. Granddaddy had two large rocks in the shape of benches. These rocks, mounted on smaller rocks, made a wonderful shady resting place after an afternoon of play or work. The house is on a hill meaning you always felt any breeze blowing through the area as the wind herald its presence in the leaves overhead.

On the South side of the house Grandmother had her clothes line. The clothes hanging on the line flapped in the wind and filled the air with the scent of fresh washed sheets. I can still remember Grandmother’s wringer washer churning the clothes clean. Then she carried the clothes out to the line and hung them in the fresh breeze. Today we throw a scented sheet in the dryer hoping for that same fresh smell. You can go down to the local store and buy candles that try to emulate that smell but can’t really match it. (My apologies to the candle makers out there.)

The back yard had its own set of shade trees that surrounded the old wooden sheds holding Granddaddy’s tools. To the side of the shed Granddaddy parked his old Ford tractor he had for many years. And in front of the shed was the old well house. An old electric line hung overhead between the well house and the main house to power the pump.

Of course my memories run across many years. In later years both the wringer washer and the tractor had left. But the shade trees and the breeze on the hill remained even to this day. I remember Granddaddy and me sitting beneath the pear tree just in front of the garden. Granddaddy was pealing a pear as he talked to me about my life, what I was doing, or what girl I might be seeing. I am sure he was using the moment to remember his own childhood and his own pleasant memories. Each of us use those pleasant moments in the past to warm our souls.

The wind is now blowing cold outside and the snow glitters across our yard. I knew I should have finished raking the leaves last weekend. Maybe my children will remember the days when we wrapped up in large overcoats and trudged through the snow to clear the driveway. Hopefully those memories will cool a hot Southern summer day for them as they enjoy the pleasures of my home in Alabama.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fireplace Memories [CCR]

Cold weather has definitely struck Ohio. The folks in Alabama would swear it was the middle of February here, but alas it is still only November. The fireplaces have started their curl of smoke up to the sky from many Ohio homes. I just haven’t figured how a fireplace could heat a home in the worst weather up here.

As a boy growing up in Alabama I became very accustomed to fireplaces and the weekly experience of cutting wood. It was always a challenge to get close enough to the fire at Granddaddy Daily’s house to feel the full warmth without getting popped by a hot ember. I guess I did rather good because I don’t remember getting burned by an ember, but I do remember the watching Granddaddy stoke the fire and the flames rise anew.

Dad grew up in the home of a woodsman and mastered all the talents of woodworking that I wish I had gained. As a result Dad personally molded the house along the years, transitioning it into the home we see today. Along the way Dad hired Mr. Eckles from town to build us a fireplace. Mr. Eckles and his crew were fine masonry men and it wasn’t long before we had our own fireplace. Dad made the various metal components for the fireplace including a rack to hold a pot.

While Dad usually came to my rescue on the larger logs, it become my job to keep the wood box full and the ashes emptied. Dad and Mr. Eckles had built an ash dump mechanism which save much time. But the smell of a fresh fire that had been the attraction at my Granddaddy’s house was now ours. Dad and I spent many Saturdays cutting wood. He always kept the wood ready for the next season so we had a stack of dry wood and a stack of green wood. A true combination made a better fire.

Mom began to take advantage of the fireplace too. She would fix a big cast iron pot of beans that had a home cooked taste you pay extra for today. She would bake a pan of cornbread that, crumbled into those hot beans, made the whole effort of keeping the fire going worth the time. Southern cornbread can’t be matched. Folks up here seem to think sugar goes in cornbread. They just don’t understand.

As the years went by the configuration of our fireplace changed. Dad used a soft fire brick to close the front of the fireplace and add a wood heater which provided more efficient heat. Later, at Mom’s bequest, Dad built a flue on the wall next to the fireplace for the heater and reopened the fireplace for the smells and beauty of a roaring fire on a cold day. But the chores of the wood box remained for my years at home.

Today the wood box is missing. So is the wood heater, which took up a new home in Dad’s workshop. Dad has grown older and my years at home are past, so we miss the times together cutting wood. The fireplace and wood heater have been replaced with the more efficient gas logs. I must admit they provide the heat needed to keep the house cheerfully warm. But when I drive along the country roads of Ohio and pass a home with that curl of smoke, the smell takes me back to the days of cornbread and beans. And you know, I actually miss keeping that old wood box.

As I arrive home from the office and open the door I find a house full of electronic gadgetry blaring and food cooking on the electric stove. Yes, it is nice to have all the conveniences of today and to be comfortable. But there is something missing in my mind, something about hickory smoked beans, fresh baked cornbread, and Southern sweet tea. Even in my house in Ohio I look over to the corner of the room and miss that box full of wood and the crackle of embers as the glow fills the room.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Southern Boy Gets A New Brief Case [CCR]

It seems I never can get quite accustomed to the airlines and flying around the country. The first twenty years of my life went by without ever needing to step foot on an airplane and now it seems I can’t get away from them. My most recent trip to Baltimore proved to bring back the challenges I haven’t seen in a few years. In short, the airline lost my luggage. My plane left Columbus an hour late and then we were delayed an additional hour and a half in Cincinnati. Nonetheless the thought of the airline losing my luggage crossed my mind. I don’t know what caused the premonition in Baltimore, but it didn’t take me long to check the airline luggage office and discover my bags were sitting in Cincinnati. With all my travels I haven’t waited on bags for several years now.

Right after leaving Cherokee almost twenty years ago I went to work for Mobil Chemical’s Machine Development Group. Our group developed the equipment for manufacturing the Hefty garbage bags. I was the electrical engineer and Clyde was my technician. Together we traveled the country supervising the installation of our equipment and training the operators. That work meant a lot of time in the air and it also meant we saw interesting events. We always had luggage to check since we carried a lot of computer equipment and training materials.

One of my best memories was a trip to Austin, Texas from St. Louis, Missouri. The airlines had damaged one of my brief cases on a previous trip and I used their reimbursement along with some extra funds to buy a new case. Clyde and I were based in Illinois and he always took every opportunity to say something about my Southern heritage, of which I was quite proud. Clyde just couldn’t understand how I ended up with a new case so he devised a plan. Unfortunately he divulged that plan while we stood in line at the airport.

What happened next has puzzled me for the last twenty years. How did the airline know Clyde’s plan? I think Clyde wasn’t really serious. But, the plan was laid out whether it would actually happen or not. Someone had to hear. Clyde decided that once we got to Austin he would declare damage to his brief case, which he checked. He told me that he too could get enough from his case to buy a new one.

We arrived in Austin and waited patiently for our bags. My large bag arrived along with my nice new brief case. Clyde’s large bag arrived. Now we waited for Clyde’s brief case. The conveyor stopped and we were ready to go declare the case lost when the terrible truth revealed itself. The conveyor sounded an alert and through the window came a large cardboard box. In that box were the contents of Clyde’s brief case in a shamble. A second box contained what looked like the remains of a brief case that had been demolished by the landing gear of a Boeing 747. I looked at Clyde and said nothing. The big Southern grin on my face said it all.

Thank goodness my trip to Baltimore didn’t see such tragedy. But I did live out of a big box discount store for three days while my luggage slowly found its way from Cincinnati to my hotel in Seaford, Delaware. Through the years my luggage has had many interesting trips to places I have yet to see. But I learned on a trip to Texas that discussing the fate of one’s luggage while waiting in line at the airport is not a good idea.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The World Of Jackson Creek [CCR]

Recently I completed a business trip to Delaware. I was surprised at seeing that Delaware was actually much more rural than I ever imagined. As I traveled through the small towns on my journey I looked at the older buildings and could only imagine what these people were doing through the years prior to my visit. I guess I never really gave much consideration to the world outside of Northwest Alabama, at least until I traveled to college. Our family did take vacations and I knew the world was much larger than our area. But our little corner of the world, the hills and rural areas around Colbert County, provided everything I needed.

Behind Granddaddy Daily’s house runs Jackson Creek, a small stream of water that feeds into the beginnings of Buzzard Roost Creek which slowly runs through the hills down to Bear Creek near the Riverton Rose Trail. My cousins and I spent many hours running down the hill behind Granddaddy’s house and playing in the cool spring fed water. It was fun to start at the top of a small hill along the creek and slide down slowly through the water, our own home version of a water slide. But you had to watch along the way as the creek had several deeper holes. None you could actually swim in, but big enough you could catch minnows, or more importantly crawdads. City folk may correct me with the term "crayfish", but we knew these miniature lobster looking critters as crawdads or maybe someone called them crawfish. Either way, they had many uses for us.

Grandmother made fresh homemade biscuits every morning. Us grandkids often coaxed her into saving some of the dough. Biscuit dough was excellent, in our opinion, for catching crawdads. Grandmother would provide us some thread and straight pins or maybe a regular pin. We had the perfect setup for hooks, line, and bait. We often waited for a crawdad to grab the hook, but when impatience overtook the wait we reached into the water and grabbed one. Unless you were the one involved, it was often quite funny to watch the poor fisherman who received the pinch of the unhappy crawdad. A more experienced fisherman watched what end they were grabbing.

I don’t exactly remember what we did with the crawdads. I suspect if Dad or one of my uncles were planning on fishing we might save some. But more often I believe we dropped them on the rocks and watched them crawl backwards into the hole of water from whence they came. Of course the ones lucky enough to grab enough flesh of the right person might be rewarded with freedom quicker than his comrades.

The creek still slowly mingles through the woods behind Granddaddy’s old house. I suspect it misses us children just about as much as we miss it. The path from the top of the hill is probably overtaken with weeds and well populated with wildlife not as friendly to children. But nature hasn’t had time to wash away that solid rock bottom and those two holes of water that became a large part of our childhood. Jackson Creek is waiting quietly until another generation discovers the fun that can be found in a small spring fed stream rolling quietly along a solid rock bed, bubbling and gurgling its calls for playtime.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lighting Up The House [CCR]

It’s the beginning of October and the weather here in Ohio already qualifies as an "Alabama Christmas." I look at my homecoming pictures from high school in Cherokee and see everyone in short sleeves. Here you may get by with summer gear for the first or second football game and then you better have your winter gear ready. In all my confusion with the temperature I can go into almost any of the "big box" stores and already see a fine selection for Christmas. Back home we always joked about the stores setting up Christmas earlier each year, but the stores here have had Christmas on the shelves for a month now. I guess we are skipping Halloween this year.

Even though my Granddaddy Smith loved Fourth of July best, he treasured every holiday. I think he didn’t want to show it, but he loved getting the family together and seeing his fine collection of grandchildren. Christmas was always fascinating with all the lights hanging around town and on the houses. We always had a beautiful Christmas tree, but we never had outdoor lights. Granddaddy would line his porch each year with the outdoor lights. He used the larger ones and always had some that twinkled. It always took the twinkling lights time to warm up and I waited in anticipation to see the first one blink. They were not a complex collection, just a simple single string of lights circling along the edge of the porch. It was a true sign of Christmas when Granddaddy hung the lights.

Trips to Tuscumbia, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, or Florence near Christmas always included tours of the lit streets and houses. I can still see the trumpeting angels that lined the streets of Sheffield. Rogers Department Store in Florence was always decorated for Christmas and we always stopped by to visit my Aunt Virginia Daily who wrapped gifts there. I think she really enjoyed the opportunity to meet all the people and she got a preview of many people’s Christmas surprise.

As my Granddaddy got older I took on the task of making sure he got a Christmas tree. But I will never forget the year Granddaddy talked about not putting up the lights on the front porch. I don’t think he realized how connected I became to those lights. So I began helping him get the lights out of the old wooden shed. We always plugged them in to see which ones survived the year and were ready to shine again. Granddaddy would unscrew the porch light bulb and replace it with a receptacle adapter. He plugged in the lights and then we carefully strung them along the edge of the porch.
Each year we gathered at Christmas and celebrated another year together. If you heard a car coming up the driveway you could look out the window and see the visitors arrive in the glow of the colorful lights. Everyone would be carrying wrapped gifts or dishes of food. Grandmother always had plenty of food for everyone.

The family still gathers each year. Last year we gathered at Thanksgiving to visit Uncle Travis’s house. This year we will travel to visit Uncle Eugene who also lives near Memphis. But when I get home to Cherokee it won’t be the same to look across the cotton field and not see those lights. But if you look real close when you pass by you might see Granddaddy and me sorting out a wad of glowing lights. And once again you will know its Christmas.

Friday, September 29, 2006

And A Color Television [CCR]

Recently I booked a trip to Baltimore. I really don’t like the large cities even though my job requires travel to these bustling jumbles of crossroads. I have had my share of experiences on the Long Island Freeway and around the Washington, DC Beltline. I have become more interested in the business at hand than sightseeing. I was hoping to avoid a rental car and find some better way to my hotel and the meetings. Being “modern” I looked up the hotel website to find my options for travel from the airport to the hotel. There wasn’t much to see. Disappointing for a hotel that costs $255.00 per night. Even the amenities were somewhat curious. I don’t know why, but the list mentioned the television three times: Television, Cable Television, and Color TV. I will spare you the disparity of the remaining amenities for now.

Why would a hotel list color television as a feature? Do hotels still provide black and white television? I might be more impressed with the modern “high definition” television which I have not seen in any hotels. But many of us do remember the bright flashing neon sign pronouncing color television and air conditioning as an attractant to the passing motorist.

My parents grew up without the luxury of a noisy blaring box to dull their mind. Many generations before me hoped to complete their chores with a little time to spare on some schoolwork. But times changed and my generation found things a little different. Each afternoon my sister and I rushed off the school bus with hope to catch a glance of some television program. We rushed to get our homework and our chores done. And then we sat in front of the television. We really didn’t even understand a need for color pictures for the antics of the Three Stooges or the saving cry of the Lone Ranger did not require color. Before Dad added the “booster” our antenna only picked up Channel 15 and Channel 36 in Florence unless the weather was very good and we picked up a Huntsville station. But that was sufficient for us.

Times were changing and the color television was the wave of the future. The fine folks at NBC still had a relationship with RCA and used their fanning color peacock to sell new color televisions. Our life changed when Dad finally traded our old black and white set for a color television. We were in synch with the modern world. You actually watched for programs presented in color.

Today we can’t imagine a world without television. We have a whole generation of adults who don’t know a world without stereo sound and compact disks. Anything less than thirty channels is not acceptable and most cable networks tout hundreds of channels as they compete with satellite receivers about the size of a Frisbee. I’m not sure if I have really seen all the channels available on my television and I doubt time will avail me that pleasure. Now high definition widescreen broadcasts mean you must purchase another television to keep “in tune.”

My children play a video game on a network with thousands of people around the world. That network and even my telephone comes to me courtesy of high speed cable. I sat down at my daughter’s computer last night and found a great website. It featured “old” television shows. My children gathered around me and gazed at my glance into my teen years. I heard the snicker.

When I get to that fancy hotel I think I will gladly take a deduction for the room with the black and white television. After all, it is listed as an amenity. Oh yes, it also mentioned the room included a private bath. I think I am getting a bargain.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Vacation in the Sky [CCR]

The hours just before dawn can often be intriguing and mysterious in some ways, especially on the wide open road. Last week I was traveling on Highway 10 between Lawrence and Kansas City, Kansas driving to the airport in the eerie darkness before dawn. Across the open prairie I could see the brilliant lightshow provided by a distant storm. My sister has told me that statistically Kansas is flatter than a pancake. It does make me miss the terrain of home, but I’m sure the local residents enjoy the distance views the flatness provides.

Mom and Dad always wanted to provide great experiences for the family, so we took vacations when possible. Often they would schedule our departure in the early hours in hopes that we make the full drive to our destination in one day. Waking up for departure on those trips proved just slightly more exciting than when Dad and I rose before dawn for our Saturday fishing adventures. Mom would spend the day before our departure packing and would ensure my sister and I got in bed early enough. But the early bedtime did not always work well with the level of excitement. So we lay in our beds dreaming of the excitement that lay ahead.

One of my more memorable trips at a younger age took us to the Great Smokey Mountains. I can remember staying at the “441 Motel” somewhere near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. We do have some pictures still around that help remind me of that trip. There I am standing with my sister in the motel room enjoying the head dress and drum my parents had bought me at the souvenir shop. Looking back now I know our parents sacrificed to give us the experiences, but then I don’t remember having a single worry in the world.

We also traveled to one of the more famous tourist traps in the area, Ghost Town in the Sky. I can still remember the gun fight on the open street and our stop in the saloon for the show. The memory of that trip to Ghost Town bore so deep into my pleasurable memories that it required my return trip to the little amusement park about six years ago. My parents and my nephew traveled with our family as we relived memories from years past. Most of the time they say you can’t ever go back to a previous time, but seeing the excitement in my children’s eyes surely took me back to my own adventure.

Shortly after our trip to Ghost Town, an accident at the park led to a review by North Carolina officials. They found a couple of the rides deficient and demanded upgrades and repairs. Unfortunately the owner of the park, who happened to be the original owner, was really ready to retire and did not want to invest the funds. So the park closed and it has waited a number of years for its possible demise.

Just as I followed the unfortunate loss of Opryland I also kept up with the news on Ghost Town. It so happens that Nashville has sealed its fate in being unable to build the return of a popular attraction like Opryland. But recently I learned that the old Ghost Town has had better news. The old park almost became victim to the wiles of neighborhood developers who would fill the hillside with mansions and dismantle the park. But someone has now decided to refurbish the park and rebuild the rides. While I no longer seem to find all the joy in the bouncing jerks of a roller coaster, it may be possible for one more trip to watch my kids enjoy the Red Devil roller coaster. Maybe I will get to see one more famous gunfight as the actors roll off the buildings and into the streets. And once again I will prove the old saying wrong and return to one of those famous moments in my childhood.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fall Festivals [CCR]

As I drove to work this morning I admired the glowing red sun rising above the horizon looking forward to the remaining fall warmth it will bring before winter. My current residence in Ohio is my second round of living the Midwest since leaving home. In the Midwest you get to enjoy a lengthy spring and fall, but that doesn’t quite make up for February. Each year I trudge through the mountain of inevitable snow looking forward to the first inkling of spring. Everywhere I have lived I have enjoyed the local festivals and events and in Ohio they are especially prevalent in the fall.

We had a number of fall festivals to enjoy back home in Cherokee. Each fall the schools would either organize a Halloween Carnival or a Fall Festival. I can remember attending those festivals and enjoying the homemade games sponsored by each classroom. Of course the smaller children always enjoyed the fish pond and were always tingling with excitement as they opened their paper sack filled with goodies. I can easily remember both sides of the event, one holding the fishing cane with the hook and, as an older child, placing a bag of goodies on the waiting hook.

Mom graduated college as I finished fourth grade and when I entered fifth grade she began teaching at Barton Elementary. Mom’s work at Barton meant we attended and worked with many events at the community school. And one of the biggest events was the Halloween Carnival. I can still remember Jack Crowell standing on top of a chair and auctioning the various items people had donated to the festival. I don’t think anybody could have made a better auctioneer. My purchases included a box of floor tile that Dad would later install in our bathroom. He only recently replaced it with more modern tile. I also remember buying apple juice containers and even a stuffed tiger that hung around my apartment in college. The school also had the ever popular cake walk and many other traditional events. Today I pass where the school once stood and while I see a marvelous church on the grounds where the school once stood, I can still see Mom’s classroom and remember the events that were “standing room only.”

While I was in high school I traveled with my parents and grandparents to the festival at Meriwether Lewis Park in Hohenwald, Tennessee. That trip was my first experience of a larger traditional crafts festival and I can still hear the clunk, clunk, clunk of the single cylinder corn grinder. Almost any open fire can trigger my memory of the aroma. You could smell the various items cooking and the fires built to ward off the fall chill. After my first visit I made that trip an annual trek until I left home in 1987. Each year I marked the second weekend in October as my special weekend to visit the festival. The memory of the golden leaves along the Natchez Trace on my trip to the festival only add to the colorful imprint in my mind.

In the next few weeks I will be celebrating the last few weeks of warmth before winter grabs its clutches on our home here in Ohio. I always attend Galion’s Oktoberfest and you will find me seated promptly in front of the stage for the big band era listening to various Ohio groups play. I may be wrapped in a blanket with something warm to drink. My employer has given hints that I may soon relocate and one of the possible locations is in middle of Tennessee. There I will enjoy a milder winter and if I mourn the missing snow that moment will pass quickly. But no matter where I go I will seek out the local festivals and traditions that will trigger my memories of home.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Games People Play [CCR]

Isn’t it amazing all the gadgets and devices we have developed just to entertain our children? It seems that once you save money to get your child that desired device the electronics companies come out with something new just to keep your cash flowing out. My youngest son loves catching me on my computer so he can have me look up "cheat codes." These special codes allow him to do things on those games that overcome obstacles and make the game a breeze. His urgently wants to see the entire game and proclaim his victory. It has gotten so bad that I no longer purchase the games. I found a place to rent them fairly cheap because the boys quickly get to the end of the game and are no longer interested.

Most people realize that some of the "old fashioned" games actually challenge the intellect and include no intervening luck or chance. Games like chess or checkers actually require the ability to think ahead and plan each move. I guess that is how I knew that my Granddaddy Daily pretty much had me beat when it came to the thinking things through. Even to this day I know he could build things that I couldn’t even draw and he passed that trait on to my Dad. But, he also played a mean game of checkers.

In the evening Granddaddy would finish supper and take a seat in his favorite chair. It was then that he would entertain the thought of playing a game. I guess after all his years of labor it was nice to be able to show a grandchild how to think ahead and make good decisions. We would pull over a small table and get out the checker board. I can’t remember how we chose who got the red checkers and who got the black, but I do remember that red checkers made the first move. From the beginning Granddaddy was already calculating each move as the checkerboard glowed in the firelight from the fireplace.

Winning a game always makes someone feel good. But from what I remember the goal for Granddaddy wasn’t always winning. Maybe he enjoyed his form of teaching, but I can remember him telling me to look again before I made my fatal move. Sometimes he might even hint where to look. But, in the end the move was my decision to make and his next move quickly exposed whether I had thought ahead. I can still hear Granddaddy’s laugh when he was pleased with how the game was proceeding. It was a sort of chuckle. But he was never laughing at me. He was purely enjoying the game and how I was learning to think.

Yes, my sister and I had some of the more famous games. I can remember Susan’s Green Ghost game and Twister. If we only knew where the Green Ghost game was now, it is a collector’s item.. We had other famous games like Monopoly and Mouse Trap. But all of those games involved chance, a lucky roll of the dice or rotation of a spinner. Maybe we had a little strategy to work on, but one spat of good or bad luck could totally turn the game. Granddaddy’s checkers totally discarded the luck and boiled down to our ability to observe, analyze, and plan ahead. Plus you had to ascertain your opponent’s thought process and anticipate what you may miss.

The next time you hear that annoying electronic bleeping or nerve grinding synchronized music blaring from your television or computer monitor, pull out a checkerboard and teach a child to think. You will be spending precious time with your child and teaching the valuable ability to mull over a situation and derive a solution. But don’t laugh as hard as my Granddaddy. You might suffer the same bout of hiccups.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Across the Cotton Patch [CCR]

Growing up around my extended family was extremely nice. It was an advantage that my children don’t have today and probably causes them to miss some valuable lessons. Each member of the entire family influences a child’s future. In my case I was extremely influenced by my grandparents. My Granddaddy Smith, who most people knew as Jack, always had time for me.

My Grandmother and Granddaddy Smith lived just a short distance across the cotton patch. Between our house and their house was a worn path that we walked regularly. Today it is just a short walk, but as a small child it seemed a great distance. About halfway along the path two huge cedar trees grew and separated the cotton patch from Granddaddy’s strawberry patch. Each year that little patch of land behind the trees grew a fairly good crop of strawberries that didn’t require much care. Mom and Dad gave me a go-kart when I was in elementary school and I wore a race track through that patch. I could stop anytime and eat my fill of berries, but that is another story for another day.

One of the great advantages of our situation was the hollering distance across that patch. The distance was just about right for Grandaddy to call me. I can still remember Granddaddy yelling, “Hey Mark!” He might have to yell a couple of times, but I would look up and see him waving. He didn’t have to say much because I often knew what he wanted. He either needed to talk, or more likely he and Grandmother were headed to town. Going to town usually meant going to Tuscumbia or Iuka. I made many trips to town with them. I never really bought anything and all I remember is always enjoying the trip.

One of my best memories of that famous yell led me to look across the pasture and not see Granddaddy anywhere in sight. I could hear his voice but I just couldn’t see where he was at. I had just stepped out into the back yard so I knew he had to notice me and should be in sight. And then I saw him. Granddaddy was straddled across the top of his chimney. It seems he had climbed a ladder to the roof of the house and then used a ladder to complete his climb to the chimney. But the second ladder fell over and now Granddaddy was perched on the chimney like a bird.

Granddaddy had spent some time up there on that chimney yelling to Grandmother for help. But I suspect her work in the kitchen or discussion on the telephone overtook his cry for help. So in a moment of luck I happened into the yard and Granddaddy caught sight of me. I ran along the path and got to the chimney quickly. Granddaddy suggested I call for help, but I climbed the first ladder and repositioned the second ladder so he could climb down. I guess that calibrated hollering distance saved the day.

Today I travel home to Mom and Dad’s house and glance up to Granddaddy’s old house. The cedar trees are gone, cut by a farmer who rents the field from my uncle. The old strawberry patch has become part of the plowed field. Granddaddy’s house still stands with a familiar look but is somewhat worn by time. I can look across that field and I can still see my Granddaddy waving his hand and giving that all too familiar yell. I want to run up the path and meet him, but Dad has replaced the gate with a closed fence.

One day I know Granddaddy and I will meet again. I will once again hear that yell of my name. I want to ask him how he was able to keep those strawberries growing without much care. And then maybe he and I will share a memory of those trips to town or even a laugh about the day the ladder fell.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

How To Hang An Elephant [Exclusive]

Most people have heard of Thomas Edison and what we credit as his contributions to our world today. If nothing else, you find his name still hanging as part of many electric companies in our country. Edison’s General Electric remains as one of our great American institutions. We also have heard of George Westinghouse, and while we may not credit him with as many contributions, his name also hangs around on appliances and electrical devices. Many people haven’t heard of their contentious rivalry and how it affected our lives.

Edison’s work with direct current founded his legacy in the world of electricity. We learned from our history lessons that Edison “invented” the light bulb. However Edison’s light bulb was illuminated by direct current, the same type of electricity derived from batteries and used in our vehicles. Westinghouse gave his allegiance to the Nikola Tesla’s work with alternating current. Few people realize Nikola Tesla, a Serbian inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer, contributed more to our modern form of electric power transmission. While Tesla was extremely intelligent, he didn’t have the marketing charisma held by both Edison and Westinghouse. He did receive much respect and recognition in history leading the United States Supreme Court’s recognition of him in 1943 as the inventor of the radio. But, alas, Tesla died at 86 years of age broke and with little recognition.

Westinghouse recognized Tesla’s alternating current as the best means to minimize power generation facilities and transfer energy over great distances. For rural America alternating current’s ability to transform to different voltages provided the benefit of electric power. But Edison strongly disagreed. Edison held that direct current was safer for home use. But we know today that at the same higher voltages direct current can be just as lethal and painful as alternating current. Yet, at the time, people were not privy to the world of electric power and were left to the trust or marketing ability of those promoting the industry. In fact, marketing is where Edison and Westinghouse both held strength and went to unthinkable lengths to compete.

Edison may have believed direct current was safer, but he also had invested a sum of money into his factories to build and sell electric apparatus for direct current. Westinghouse, holding to Tesla’s work, invested in building and selling apparatus for alternating current. Thus the “War of Currents,” as it has been labeled, began.

Edison spent great energy in trying to discredit Westinghouse’s efforts by pronouncing and “demonstrating” the hazards of alternating current. Edison’s research company at Menlo Park actually provided the state of New York with their first electric chair. Edison opposed capital punishment, but found it a means to discredit his competitor. Edison had already tried other means to prove the hazards of alternating current which leads to the headline of this article.

In 1902 Topsy the Elephant resided at Coney Island’s Luna Park. She previously worked for the Forepaugh Circus. It is widely held that a trainer at Luna Park attemped to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. As a result Topsy delved her punishment upon the trainer which ended with his death. Unfortunately this was Topsy’s third homicide in as many years. Regardless of cause, Topsy was judged a hazard and sentenced to die. Her owners proposed a hanging, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested and won a reprieve for Topsy from this cruel death. Next her owners attempted to feed Topsy a carrot laced with cyanide. Topsy refused the carrot and defied her owners. It was Edison who presented the solution deemed most humane and effective. Topsy would be electrocuted with 6,600 volts of alternating current. For some reason people considered Edison’s idea humane. Edison found an opportunity to once again discredit Westinghouse. To make sure people fully contemplated the idea Edison obtained permission to film the execution.

On January 4, 1903 Topsy was led by her trainer to her place of execution and was shackled to the wired chains. Topsy died a rather fast death that provided dramatic footage for Edison’s documentary. Edison had already experimented on other animals with electrocution so the effective outcome was certain.

Edison’s use of Topsy’s electrocution to discredit Westinghouse was a vain effort. Westinghouse won the contract to harness the power of Niagra Falls and proclaimed the power of Niagra Falls could electrify the entire Eastern United States. Westinghouse built the hydroelectric generators using Tesla’s patent and the generators actually bore Tesla’s name. The 60 hertz frequency used by Niagra Falls’ generators set the standard for the United States. Within five years Westinghouse had completed a transmission line to Buffalo, New York and powered industry there. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 had already used Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current to provide light for the fair and introduce electric illumination to the world. Edison had bid a price of one million dollars to “power” the fair. Westinghouse offered his power for half the price. Alternating current and Tesla’s polyphase systems were much more efficient than direct current, giving Westinghouse a cost advantage. By the time of Topsy’s death Edison had already lost the war.

Edison’s companies continued to use direct current whenever possible and many cities maintained their investment in Edison’s distribution methods until new investments were absolutely necessary. Consolidated Edison of New York City continued to supply direct current power until it announced the end of direct current availability in January, 2005. Until then the company had claimed to maintain the availability of direct current due to the number of direct current elevator motors remaining in service from the early twentieth century.

The world finally got to witness the spectacle of a hanging elephant when Mighty Mary, a five ton Asian elephant from the Sparks World Famous Shows circus was executed in 1916. Competing accounts told of how Mary had killed Red Eldridge, a hotel worker hired as an assistant elephant trainer. Newspapers helped sell the story that Mary was a dangerous killer elephant. Mary was condemned to die. To save face the circus owner decided to publicly execute the elephant. On September 13, 1916 the circus held a full show while Mary remained chained outside the tent. After the circus ticket holders were given the opportunity to follow the parade of elephants, with Mary in the line, and watch an elephant hanging. The audience included children of all ages. The first attempt failed when the chain around Mary’s neck broke and Mary fell in agony with a broken hip. The workers rigged a second chain and Mary successfully died hanging from a chain held by a railcar-mounted crane.

The wiles of marketing can lead to many interesting and entertaining events. Few forget Coca Cola teaching the world to sing or Wendy’s bringing “Where’s the beef?” to popular culture. But fewer remember that the motivation of gain and self promotion can lead to darker conclusions. And now we know how to hang an elephant.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Morning Air [CCR]

As I drove to the office this morning I watched the fog roll over the top of the corn stalks and gently down to the adjacent soy bean field. It provides a wonderful backdrop to the rising sun, the aged wood barn, and half buried tractor revealing the passage of time. Mornings are very special. You see the world new again as it wakes. And on the cool mornings as the rising sun warms the air you feel the crispness of fall lying just around the corner. So goes mornings here in the Midwest.

But there was something even more special to me rising to those mornings in the South. As a small child we didn’t have a house full of air conditioning nor did my grandparents have the benefit of artificial climate control. We slept with the windows open in the summer and could feel the early morning cool breeze sweep open the curtains in the windows. That cool breeze usually carried the aroma of breakfast cooking in the kitchen. If that weren’t enough to rouse your senses at my grandparents the rooster had sensed the same new day and began his crow to announce his prominence in the barnyard.

Home had other ways to tease your senses in the mornings. One sense was the missing gentle song of the insects that lulled you to sleep. With the rising sun came their time to end the all night festivities and take their own time to rest. The morning also brought the fresh smell of the dew on the kudzu leaves filling the air. My sister and I often took turns watching out the window for the school bus as we scrambled to find those last scraps of homework. After getting on the bus we opened the windows and felt the breeze blowing in our face with aroma as we rolled down the hill on Moody Lane towards Malone Creek.

Summers and weekends gave you other reminders that weren’t necessarily brought by nature. The farmers took advantage of every moment available to nurse their crops and the sound of tractors beginning their morning work could be heard after breakfast. Later in the morning you would hear the planes spraying their defoliant we called cotton poison on the white fields of cotton around the house. That continuous buzz of the plane as it danced its way across the fields was a natural summer sound for those of us in the midst of the fields.

We had other signs of mornings that accompanied special activities. Since we heated our house with wood, Dad and I spent many Saturday mornings gathering wood for our winter stash. We left early so we could get a load in before the heat of the day took its toll on our progress. Those mornings added the smell of the fresh cut wood to the air as we loaded our old Chevy truck.

And then there were those special mornings when Dad woke me long before the sun had begun to glaze the horizon. It was a day off from other work to go fishing. The smell of the Tennessee River in the morning as we baited our hooks and anticipated our catch was even unique and something I really miss here in the Midwest. You would hear the lapping of the water against our small boat as the fishing line bobbed in the glittering orange morning light attempting to lure a fish to breakfast.

Mornings not only remind us to be thankful for the rising sun, but also provide a reminder that today is truly a new day. And with those mornings here I can flush my mind of the day’s upcoming tasks and reflect on those memories of growing up back in the Shoals. The sounds, the smells, and the sights of mornings have a way of taking one back to the good memories and is a way of preparing for what this day will bring.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Lights Out [CCR]

It was a very quite, clear, and sunny Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. The day was not especially warm and we were sitting in the living room enjoying a light breeze through the windows when it happened. The lights went out. As a child it wouldn’t have been a big problem for me. But today it seems our entire existence revolves around electricity. As an electrical engineer my entire career focuses on the ability to tame and control electricity. With that said my daughter and I set out in my truck to explore the town and find the source of our problem.

We have entire generations today that do not know an existence without the benefits of electric power. But there are those amongst us who do know how to survive without what we consider a necessity but they know is a convenience. Family gatherings for them didn’t consist of the entire family sitting around a box soaking in a flickering screen. Cooling off meant sitting on the front porch swing instead of plopping down on the couch in air conditioning. Getting homework done after chores meant lighting a coal oil lamp. So when the power goes off today we become either disoriented or, in my case, curious.

During my younger years we experienced our share of power outages on Moody Lane. Sheffield Utilities did a great job of delivering power and restoring it quickly when it failed, but some power outages are a fact of rural life. Mom kept a lamp ready for those occasions. I always remember hunting for the matches. We took off the chimney glass, raised the wick, and lit the flame. Then you quickly adjusted the wick so you had enough light from the flame without too much flame smoking up the glass. The house was almost magical as the light from the flame seemed to dance in rhythm around the walls of the room. As a child I didn’t realize the food in our electric freezer and refrigerator depended on the return of power. The power outages were sort of exciting and almost magical.

Once the lamp was lit Mom looked for the telephone book. She would look up the telephone number of Sheffield Utilities to call and report the outage. In many cases you knew the power outage was widespread and well known when the line remained busy. On rare occasions even the telephone was not working. My homework didn’t depend on the computer or the Internet and our rural life eradicated our dependence on electronic entertainment. Don’t get me wrong. Today apart of me looks back and longs for those days.

So with the power out at our house in Ohio I quickly check the telephone to make sure it still works because I expect, if the outage is widespread, my company will be calling. My telephone works through the Internet, but I have an uninterruptible power supply on my mass of communications equipment and networks. If the cable stays on my children don’t even lose connection with their friends on a chat session. When all else fails we have the curse of modern life, a cell phone. The power company’s telephone number is stored on the cell phone. With all the gadgets and devices we forget the complexity behind it all and sort of expect the constant supply of power. With the lights out we venture out to a world we rarely see but our grandparents knew every day. We get to meet the neighbors who meet us as well. Maybe this power outage has its own purpose.

Chrissie and I drive around town noticing one side of the street without power and one side with power. We make it down to the major intersection just as the police arrive to direct traffic. It seems everyone is out and looking around. We notice the crews wrapping things up as we pass by the power substation and less than 20 minutes after the lights went out the power is on. Chrissie and I drive back home and return to our keyboards, air conditioning, stereo, and television. But my mind still drifts back to those stormy nights when I finished my homework by the rhythmic dance of the coal oil lamp light.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Great Bee Chase [CCR]

There it was in the garage. I tripped over it and it reminded me of many good times growing up back home. I guess things were a little simpler for me then. Many people say the world is more complex, but I think the complexity comes from our loss of innocence as we create our own path in the world. When you move away from home you get to see a great many sights but you also see the full scope of life, both good and bad.

Mom and Dad had a simple trust of both me and just about everyone in our area. As such I had a lot of freedom to travel around, even if it were on a bicycle. Prior to my wonderful ten speed bicycle I had one of those “banana seat” bicycles with a speedometer. I would ride it over to the plant to meet Dad when he got off from work. Don’t tell him, but I would see how fast it would go down that hill just before you reached the gate. I wouldn’t dare guess the high speed now for sake of possible exaggeration, but it was plenty fast for a young boy. When Dad came out of the gate he would throw my bicycle in the back of our old 1951 pickup truck and give me a ride home.

Later Mom and Dad got me a ten speed bicycle. That bike took me on many trips through good and bad times, even in college. I had a water bottle and lights with a generator spinning in the spokes of the back tire. It was a wonderful bicycle that carried all around Cherokee until I got my driver’s license. I remember riding it to school at the end of my eighth grade year to pick up my report card. But more importantly was the transportation to the swimming hole down on the Natchez Trace in the summer. I would bike around Moody Lane and down North Pike and then down the Trace to the river. The swimming hole was popular in those days. Now when I travel down there on my trips home it seems I never see many people. I am not sure what happened. But I can remember the days when finding a parking place down there was a luxury. But with my bicycle I had no problems. I usually swam for an hour or so and then started the trek home. Riding home on the bicycle meant my cut-off jeans would be dry long before I would reach home.

My most memorable ride came on a whim. I would ride my bicycle from our house on Moody Lane to my Granddaddy Daily’s house at Mountain Springs. The trip seemed reasonable enough and I made the ride to Barton without a hitch. In fact the first leg of the trip down Mt. Mills Road was pleasant. I stopped at my great aunt’s house for water and a moment’s rest. Dad warned me to watch for rattlesnakes or copperheads. But he forgot to warn me of the one thing that made the trip a little more difficult than planned. I was more than halfway up the hill before the road to the fire tower when it found me. A bumble bee decided my sweat was either the perfect quench of his thirst or he just didn’t like my looks. Either way, I had walked up the steepest part of the hill, but now I was setting speed records down the hill with the bee right on my back. Somewhere towards the bottom I lost the bee. I climbed that hill twice in the summer sun that day. Later I would stop at my cousin’s for water just before I reached Mt. Springs Cemetery. After completing the trip Mom and Dad came to pick me up so I didn’t have to face the bee again.

In the past I have tripped over bicycles in the garage and sort of grumbled something about the kids and the way they left their bikes. But this time something triggered a memory of a bike, home, and many great rides throughout our end of the county. Rides where you never met a stranger, you could stop for plums or blackberries growing wild along the road, and you might even get chased by a bee.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Traveling West [CCR]

This weekend I returned from a rather lengthy trip out west that took me across the expanse of South Dakota. The trip included a close-up view of the interesting texture and color of the Badlands and the various rock formations of the Black Hills. But the sights came at the price of driving across the wide open prairie lands. Here I am driving through flat open land hoping the next bump in the road will awaken me when I came upon the one thing I least expected. That sight triggered my memories of home and a slight reminder that this was my first Fourth of July trip home I missed in many years.

The rocks of the Black Hills were rather interesting and evidently proves resourceful to carving since it hosts two of the three major mountain carvings in the United States, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument. But have you ever taken the hike to the top of Red Rock? During my teen years we made several pilgrimages to the pentacle of Red Rock in western Colbert County. The visit offers sights of interesting rock formations and a rather nice view of the countryside. My last trip there was well over twenty years ago, but it is not forgotten. I am not quite sure who owns the property now, but if you can’t get access to Red Rock there are several areas along those hills that provide the same sights and sounds and beautiful scenery.

If you think finding a comparison to the Badlands in the Shoals would be more difficult then you haven’t taken a closer look at some of the rural routes. During my early years Colbert County underwent several road improvement projects that included the route from Barton to Mountain Springs now known as the Mountain Mills road. Those projects required a source of gravel and dirt for which there were two locations we called a gravel pit along the road. I am sure you may know of several others. Those areas might not have had the depth of the Badlands, but they had the variation of colors and even some fossils. Those pits included one of the special attractions you find in the Badlands. When parking at one of the rest stops on the Badlands loop road you see a sign warning of rattlesnakes. I guarantee you could find some equivalent rattlesnakes in those gravel pits, except the snakes in the gravel pits weren’t protected by the National Park Service and were subject to the wiles of our dog, Butch. You might recall Butch’s hatred for snakes.

The Badlands had a rather extensive exhibit of prehistoric life and fossils. Paleontologists probably find that a very attractive feature of the Badlands, but I can still find something near home that is attractive to paleontologists. I could always call up Bobby Stanfield and schedule a trip down to the Stanfield Worley Bluff Shelter, a famous local archeological dig in Colbert County. The University of Alabama maintains many artifacts from this site that span across 9,000 years of history. Of course the findings in the Badlands do dramatically predate the Stanfield-Worley artifacts, but you don’t drive 3,000 miles to see them.

Don’t mistake my intentions. If you have the opportunity to make the trip out west you will see some historic sites and wonderful geographical formations. But don’t forget that you have some wonderful places to explore right in your own backyard. And I know other people are hearing about our home and considering a visit. Why? About halfway across the open prairie is a large billboard proclaiming the beauty of Alabama, particularly focusing on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. That sign triggered a small sigh and a longing for the beauty of home.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Organic History [CCR]

This weekend I had to make a couple of trips over to the big box stores in the neighboring town to find some parts for my bathtub. In this store you find everything from lawn mowers to ice cream. Today it seems we try to stuff everything you can imagine into one colossal building. We did have stores with a variety of necessities in our rural Colbert County communities when I was growing up, but we just called them general stores. They may not have the super size and may not include the kitchen sink, but they had everything else and the other items were usually in a store on the same block. Harris’s General Store in Cherokee was a regular stop during my childhood when a general part was needed. Hoskins’ in Tuscumbia seemed to be the annual trip for getting the garden ready. Between Mr. Thompson and Mr. Malone you could get any groceries you needed in Cherokee. And the Davis family once ran the only stop in Mountain Springs but was later joined by the Andrews family.

My recent visit to the big box store found something that either we didn’t have or more likely didn’t label as such in the current fashion. They have an entire section purely devoted to organic foods. I reckon they tie that label to the idea of organic gardening. Have you looked at the premium you pay for those organic items? Back home I guess you might say we were organic when organic wasn’t cool to alter the phrase of a famous Barbra Mandrel song.

While my parents and a lot of people from earlier generations in Alabama can appreciate the work required just to get by, I grew up in a golden age. We probably had a lot less than my children, but we never knew what we were missing. And we had a lot more than earlier generations. I may not have had an electronic high definition video game with surround sound to play an automated football game, but I had a whole lot of the real thing. Unbeknownst to me the garden that consumed much of my time may have been necessary, but it did provide hours of entertainment that modern folks call organic gardening.

Dad usually used our pony to plow the garden after our old tiller chugged through a majority of the dirt chunks. Sometimes one of the local farmers helped out with their tractor since it only took one or two sweeps with one of their large machines. Most of the fertilizer came from the barn where our ponies and cows hung out. I suspect you don’t need further explanation, but you realize the fertilizer was only natural. I must admit we did cheat once in a while when one of the trucks passing slung out fertilizer into the ditch on the curve near the house. Dad would take the wheelbarrow up to the spill and pick up a little fertilizer to help the garden, but that wasn’t very often.

Bug spray wasn’t necessary. Yes, we had the bugs visit the garden. But Mom had the solution. She gave my sister and me an old can and a stick. Our job was to wander along the various rows of potatoes and other plants raking the potato bugs and other critters we found into the can. At the end of the row Mom would put a little fuel in the can and we burned the bugs. I bet those organic food companies don’t have a more natural method for bug removal.

After working in the garden Mom might fix a delicious dinner that included fresh garden vegetables, whole cake cornbread, and Southern sweet tea. Granddaddy may have picked up the corn meal fresh from the mill. We might top off the summer meal with homemade ice cream using milk fresh from the cow. Some meals might even include honey that either come straight from Daddy’s hives or even a bee tree we robbed. If that meal isn’t organic then I’m not sure what organic really can be.

I pass along the organic aisle in the big box store carrying various treasures found around the store including new school clothes and garden tools. I pause a moment and look at the organic fruits and vegetables. I can’t help but think trading all the wonderful times we had in that garden for hours sitting in front of a 60 inch high definition 5,000 channel flat screen mindless entertainment box. What have we done?

Monday, June 05, 2006

A Summer Breeze of Wisdom [CCR]

If you happen to travel down towards Cherokee, take the short trip out North Pike and just before you reach the Natchez Trace Parkway you will see a sign directing you towards Mhoontown Methodist Church. I’m not sure how many people know about this small but vibrant church located just a short drive into the shaded trees down Mhoontown Road. For me it is a beautiful drive I make on my July 4th pilgrimages home.

The area, the old church, and the cemetery adjacent to the church were named after the Mhoon family. Now I am quite sure my mother, our resident historian, could tell you far more details about the Mhoon family and their influence on the area. Looking around the cemetery you can see the foundations of the Mhoon family that includes burials prior to 1850 and memorials to family members laid to rest elsewhere many years earlier. The earliest memorial on record was for Moses Mhoon who died 1771, long before the Mhoon family settled there.

I highly suspect the Mhoon family was attracted to the area because of the spring located a short distance down the hill from the church. I haven’t been to the spring in years and couldn’t testify to its current condition, but a drive to the church and a walk through the cemetery will prove relaxing. Your tour through the cemetery will depict a panorama of the family names throughout the history of the area.

While the church has taken a somewhat modern look, it still has that feel of holding a history deep within its walls. Some of that history and the family names you will review include my own ancestry. Among the tombstones you will find Rev. William Jefferson Smith, born 1849 and buried in 1950, not long after celebrating his 101st birthday.

Rev. Smith was a circuit riding Methodist preacher who had become well known in our parts. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a circuit consisted of two or more churches in a geographical area and the circuit rider rotated among those churches serving as the pastor. Today a circuit is known as a charge. But the fame of the Methodist circuit riders lives on in the South and Rev. Smith carried the reputation well. I must admit I am a little prejudiced to the fact since he was my great-great grandfather and the reason my older son carries the middle name of Jefferson.

Rev. Smith departed twelve years before my birth, but left a strong impression among his family. A family that is wide spread among the population of western Colbert County. So in my walk I pause momentarily at the foot of his resting place hoping he might find a way to divulge the recipe to his longevity. If my guess is correct his secret may include his own joyful conviction to his vocation, but it may also be found in a simpler form of life. Life where worries stand aside for the moment so we enjoy the cool breeze blowing through the green trees of summer. Maybe that is why he chose Mhoontown as the place where people can drop by to pay homage. In doing so they gain a small portion of that secret and hopefully leave with contentment.

The next time you have had a long day at work, miss an important deadline, or come across someone who delights in your dismay think about that little church in the woods. If it is a bright summer day, pack a picnic and take that trip down to Cherokee. You can stop off at Colbert Park on the Natchez Trace to enjoy a meal by the river and then head south for the first exit. Take a right towards Cherokee and you’ll see the turn about a quarter mile down the road on your left. After parking by the church step out into the cool shade of the trees, breath in the fresh air, and listen. You too may discover a vital secret. And if you happen to bring any of those troubles with you, drop them off. A lot of wisdom is there to help you rediscover the true substance of your life.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gadgets and Conversation [CCR]

With my deep interest in computers and programming I have taken a special interest in gadgets, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed. The other night I was sitting on the couch with my laptop programming an automated packaging machine at one of my employer’s facilities. My wife was playing an online video game with people from all around the world. And my daughter was in her room watch a British television game show on her computer. She knew the answer to their trivia question and we discussed whether to call in and if they would send the money to the United States. We have an Internet telephone service that includes free calling to many countries. It just simply amazes me that all of this data is passing through one little box connecting me to the outside world. I often sit down and think where this world was 100 years ago and how many radio signals we propagate through the air that once lay silent. The world is certainly smaller.

Many reading this article well remember the crank telephones, the last of which left service in the United States in 1983. Those who didn’t experience the crank telephone probably experienced the party line. Our younger folks just don’t know what they were missing. If you needed to make a call you gently picked up the phone receiver to see if you were lucky enough to get a dial tone or if you happened to interrupt someone’s conversation. You then had to wait some random time and check the line again. It would simply drive my children nuts. I often have my own round of wrestling entertainment when they each want to make a call.

Most of us Alabamians enjoyed the simpler times when we often discussed life while sitting on the front porch rocker or swing. When the sun was sitting low we enjoyed the approaching cool air that would soon overcome the heat collected in the house. But until the house cooled we watched as the lightning bugs began their twinkling show and the evening serenade of the insect kingdom began. Unfortunately their serenade also included visits to our porch. But Grandmother would prepare a gnat smoke that kept the bugs clear. If you don’t know about a gnat smoke then you probably haven’t learned that the idea for those fancy citronella candles didn’t come from nowhere. Grandmother would take a large can or bucket and fill it with old rags. She then set the rags on fire, let it burn a short while, and then smothered the fire to a steady smoke. You then positioned yourself on the long front porch to miss the direct line of smoke while it built a fairly decent screen between you and the bug kingdom.

Now protected from the bugs we could talk about the events of the day or plan tomorrow. Maybe a neighbor would stop by and share a few moments and a few stories to help take you into the evening. For many of us a good Southern story outweighs a 40 inch color television any time. It was a Southern way of life that seemed to get lost in our cocoon of air conditioning and digital entertainment. As the night wore on the smoke and the visitors would soon disseminate. Grandmother would pour some water on the old can for safety and our evening was done.

I think the party line was the next best thing to transition from this front porch tradition. Many older folks found it more entertaining to share their neighborly stories from the comfort of the air conditioner. It was a free advance on the miracle of three way calling since most of your neighbors were on the same line. You could tell the story once and hit all eight people if your timing was right.

Yes, we have advanced. We each want our private line and expect nothing less. We then add the three way calling and maybe even dial into some fancy conference calling network. And in moments we are talking around the world with little consciousness to what lies between. The digital bleeps and blips pass as our new neighbors become someone in Spain, England, or Italy. But do you know the person in the next house down the road? Maybe we should have a day of no instant messaging, no telephone, no digital million channel television or compact disc player. Want to know your neighbor? Find an old bucket and some rags. Start a gnat smoke and invite the neighbors over for a chat and some iced tea. If they don’t call the sheriff you might find yourself enjoying the company of a new friend.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Open Space [CCR]

Growing up in rural Colbert County sort of stuck with me and set my mindset for many decisions I make, primarily where to live. It seems I am just not very adaptable to what one would call urban sprawl. Yes, there are times I had to adjust when living in the Atlanta area, but with a choice urban sprawl is definitely an aversion. Thus I find myself currently living in a more rural setting looking to return home some day while my work requires otherwise and I travel to the metropolitan masses. For comfort I turn to my memories of home and my occasional pilgrimage to my roots.

It was nice having the open space as a child. And we had some of the best people around to help us enjoy our area. Between our house and the river lay the Harris’s pasture. The Harris family has always been very nice to let us walk to the river or just fish the creek down the hill. My Dad was very adamant that we be good stewards of the land and show our appreciation, so we always had to leave the area cleaner than we found it. It was our way of showing appreciation. As such I found myself often walking down to the gate and then traveling the banks of Malone creek.

Just past the first hill in the pasture a huge tree rises to the sky. The last time I was home that tree still stood strong in the same spot, bigger than ever, so I suspect it still stands. That tree became my thinking spot very similar to Winnie the Pooh’s thinking spot. When faced with a big test or needing time to meditate I often traveled across that pasture and sat under the tree. Luckily the cows never seemed to hang around that tree or they were often in the other pasture. I could lay under that tree watching the leaves flutter in the breeze and the clouds pass their various shaped shadows across the land. I’m not sure Mom and Dad actually knew where I was at the time. I didn’t really divulge the secret tree to my Dad until I had left home. But they had taught me well and knew I would be fine.

Dad and I spent much time together in the woods either hunting, cutting wood, digging ginseng, or collecting pine knots. A lot of city folks don’t understand collecting pine knots, so I often explain how we heated our home with wood. The aged heart wood of the pine tree is a precious commodity for easily starting or building up fires. Many of these activities one might consider work, but later they formed themselves into memories that you use to forget the honking and yelling of the traffic jam while you sit waiting on the Long Island Expressway. I always wonder why they call such a road an “expressway”. In today’s sprawl there is nothing express about many city expressways.

So as I sit at a special light designated to signal my entrance into the “what’s my lane” game I remember when Dad and I took the old truck down to Mr. Buddy Malone’s pasture to cut wood. Mr. Malone kindly let us cut wood in areas where he planned to clear. As Dad began felling trees I had time to play or watch while staying clear of the danger until the trees were on the ground. I don’t think there was much danger since Dad would always tell the exact position where the tree would fall, a skill he learned growing up with my Granddaddy. After the tree was down my work began.

Dad would ease along the trunk of the tree cutting the limbs and various appendages away so we could collect the good wood. I took the brush or remains and stacked it neatly so it could be easily taken away or burned. There wasn’t much brush left because we collected any wood big enough to fuel our fireplace or heater. I would then begin loading the truck with rows of wood as Dad finished cutting up the tree. Once Dad finished cutting he would carry the larger trunk pieces that were too big for me. Dad would always pack the truck with every piece possible, often to the point I sometimes thought we may never leave. But looking back I realize each additional piece accumulated to save a future trip. But there was a balance to the load that allowed us to get back up the hill. And there were times that old 1951 Chevy had to make more than one try to make it up the hill.

Thus cutting wood became a method to relax and join nature. So much so I found myself volunteering to help a friend cut wood when I lived in Atlanta. It momentarily took me away from the urban sprawl and back to the open spaces I enjoyed as a child. I bought a home on several acres when in North Carolina so I could rebuild those memories. It was sad when work moved me away, but each move will be put me closer to the move that takes me home.

Many people have never truly experienced life among the trees. Yes, they may travel to national parks and think they feel the woods, but they haven’t experienced the full life within the woods. Now my time has gone and I haven’t even touched the memories of our ginseng digging or pine knot hunting. I guess I’ll save those memories to share another day. For now I must fight the Tampa traffic and catch a jet back to Ohio. I may be lucky enough to pass over home, look down, and once again think of all the good times I had growing up.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Home Cooking [CCR]

Once you leave home one of the biggest things you will miss is “home cooking.” It is my contention that we North Alabamians have one of the best cuisines in the country. My biggest problem is helping everyone else understand. Tonight I had my regular fried shrimp at Britt’s on Clearwater Beach, but I’ll take Tennessee River catfish any day over Florida Gulf shrimp. Do you think catfish was on the menu? Nope. I didn’t even have a choice of hushpuppies.

In the South we take our food as serious as our hospitality. The two traits grew together as a necessity to the hard work required for many to survive. Rarely do you go to a traditional North Alabama home without being offered something to eat. If you had grown up around my house your offerings would not likely include “junk food” either. Yes we may have had some available, but if you had eaten your regular meal you rarely had a hunger for junk food.

Growing up we ate fresh vegetables nearly every evening. At the time I think Mom and Dad thought it was a necessity to take advantage of our garden due to finances, but today what we had would be considered a luxury. I spent many summer afternoons hulling peas, shucking corn, picking butterbeans, or picking squash. We were guaranteed fresh vegetables and cornbread with true Southern sweet tea. But the advantage wasn’t limited to the summer thanks to our freezer. Mom did do some canning, but I think she was relieved to have the freezer to avoid all the work of canning. And little did she realize that freezer was locking in freshness. She did some canning by taking advantage of our grape vines, blackberries, and plums to make homemade jams and jellies.

Now I don’t mean to say other people have a bad choice, they just don’t have the best selection or their methods may need tuning. Have you ever noticed how they bread the okra with batter when you eat in some of the restaurants? It just doesn’t match up to the full flavor of Mom’s okra with just a light coating of cornmeal where you actually taste the okra. Some restaurants even abuse their squash in the same manner. In retrospect I should be thankful because I have found some places where you can’t get okra. It can be as scarce as sweet tea.

Recently I tried to talk my friends at work into a round of cooking fried green tomatoes. I wish I could share the look on their faces. I might as well have offered them road kill. Nonetheless you can’t find green tomatoes anywhere unless you grow your own where I currently live. And then I received a long discussion on the problem with grits. I didn’t even realize there was a problem with grits except in being able to locate them here.

Back in the late eighties I designed and programmed some production lines for Mobil in New Jersey. I was fortunate to stay at a very beautiful hotel in Panther Valley on the western side of New Jersey. On my first morning I wandered down to the restaurant worried about what a misplaced Alabama boy might find to eat. As luck would have it I found gold. On the menu was a “Southern” selection that included grits. I delightfully placed my order for eggs, bacon, and grits and in return I received a worried look. After some time had passed I inquired on the status of my breakfast. It seems they sent someone to the store to buy grits. On my many subsequent visits I believe they noticed me booking the room and purchased the grits in advance, because they always had my breakfast waiting. It would seem I did succeed in one effort to spread the word.

Unfortunately I still travel quite a bit and over the past twenty years I just haven’t found anyone that can match Mom’s cornbread, Grandmother Smith’s chocolate pie, or Grandmother Daily’s fresh fried chicken. Now you understand why we are very lucky and hopefully our young folks are learning the tradition from their families so we don’t lose the advantage of our special cuisine.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Goodbye Old Friend

It deeply saddened me to learn the upcoming fate for our friends at Occidental Chemical. I spent a few years working there after graduating from Auburn and enjoyed meeting many new people. It was nice to be among friends at a place where you spend so much of your time. While working at Occidental I bought my first home and married my wife. Unfortunately an irresistible opening with Mobil Chemical’s Machine Development Group lured me away from Occidental and I have not had the opportunity to move home since that time nearly twenty years ago.

The folks at Occidental taught me some very valuable lessons. After joining the group I couldn’t perform my job until I had “worn the shoes” of all the other roles in the plant. It was an effort to help me see the job from other people’s perspectives. I never will forget being at the top of a supply elevator one night changing a motor with the electricians. The elevator was swaying in the wind and it was rather cold. There was just enough room for the three of us on the platform. One of the guys laughed and asked how I felt knowing the elevator was installed on “low bid.” In other words, the engineer who designed the system probably chose the lowest cost supplier, which may or may not have been the case. The important point for me was understanding the need to install quality equipment substantial enough to withstand an industrial environment.

Another lesson took place the first night I got to wear the shoes of the night supervisor. In that role I had to visit every part of the plant and interact with everyone. It was a night that grew my sense of humor. When I entered the first area of the plant I was shown a very special trick. Here is where you find out that I am somewhat gullible. The secret was to drop a quarter off my nose into a funnel lodged in my belt. They demonstrated to me that it was quite possible so I had to show them I could do it as well. While balancing the quarter on my nose they politely filled the funnel with water. Unfortunately it was my first stop of the night and each of my future stops now had verification I was truly initiated. It was fun. I guess I wasn’t supposed to tell the secret, but I’m sure they won’t mind too much.

It was my good friend, Danny, in the Maintenance Shop who predicted I would end up marrying my wife. He watched as I first met Cindy and began my courtship. And then Danny told me that it was too late, I had the bug. Not many months later I married Cindy. Several of my friends from the Occidental attended the wedding.

Each day I would drop by the electrician’s shop near break time where I could listen to Paul Harvey, learn about events in the plant, and enjoy a little down time with the guys. Today I never listen to Paul Harvey without thinking of those guys and the daily ritual. It sort of broke the monotony. It was very rare that Mr. Hester didn’t have a story to tell or a smile to share. It was those times that prepared us for the long nights during a thunderstorm when I worked with the very same group as we recovered the electrical gear from a lightning strike. The crew at Occidental taught me a lot and proved to be very professional, knowing exactly how to handle the high voltage equipment.

On my trips home I drive by the plant and have many wonderful memories that I share with my children about the people I met there. Now there will be an additional touch of melancholy for the memories of those I met who may be about to leave or have already left. I hated to move away and leave my friends, but unfortunately my career led me to many other exciting adventures around our great country. It is good that I left with so many pleasant memories and friendships. While life does present changes, those changes will work out. I pray my old friends from Oxy are also able to enjoy many memories of the moments we shared at that meeting place in life.