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.