The First Time I Tried Baking

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One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching Granny Wham bake stuff. She made biscuits from scratch three or four times a week and she was always making pies, especially a chocolate pie I dearly loved. My favorite thing she baked though was her pound cake. She would take out her spiral bound notebook of recipes and remove the card with Pound Cake on it and lay it out on the table next to the mixer. I never understood why, after all the pound cakes she had made over the years, she would still keep the recipe close at hand. She said it was, “just in case.” I used to “help” as much as I could. I got to sift the flour onto a sheet of wax paper with the wire sifter. I can still hear the “zip, zip, zip” of the bail in the sifter can going around and around as I turned it. Then I could add the flour into the stand mixer along with the cans of sweetened condensed milk and pour in whole milk, too. The only thing I wasn’t allowed to add was eggs.

Granny preferred I not try to crack eggs on the side of the mixing bowl like she did. I had tried once and it took her ten minutes with a fork to get all the eggshells out of the batter. The greatest treat though was once the batter was safely in the baking pan, I got to lick the bowl and spatula. Now today, mothers and grandmothers too I’m afraid would be all in a tizzy about eating cake batter with raw eggs in it, but it was a simpler time back then and if it made me happy to lick the bowl, Granny was content to risk a little salmonella. (Spoiler alert: I licked A LOT of cake batter and not even an upset tummy.)

Once the cake was in the oven, I had to be extremely quiet and still. It took over an hour for the cake to first rise then bake through completely and Granny always admonished me that any shaking the floor or loud noises could cause the cake to “fall” and that would be the worst thing to happen since FDR died in 1945. I walked pretty much like an elephant when I was younger so to avoid a so-called “sad cake,” I would usually just lie in the floor of the den and read the encyclopedia while the cake baked. Later on in life, much later actually, I learned that cakes will not actually fall. This was simply scientifically impossible, but my thinking so did give Granny Wham two hours of quietude from a grandson who could be most unquiet indeed.

Well, when I was 11 or 12, I was staying at Granny and Papa’s on a Saturday morning. Papa was working till noon when Mr. Ashley called and asked Granny if she could come in to work at Belk’s for a few hours because someone had called in sick. She was leery of leaving me by myself. Granny was a worrier, and the thought of me being by myself worried her greatly, but she was also intensely loyal to Belk’s where she worked. So, after wringing promise after promise from me to not get into any mischief, she told Mr. Ashley she’d be in directly. It was only going to be for a handful of hours anyway. She left with worry on her face, but I assured her I would be fine. It was early on a Saturday morning and I was watching cartoons.

Things went swimmingly until the cartoons I liked ended at 10:00. It took me five minutes to get bored and I was dangerous in a bored state even back then. I don’t know to this day what put it in my head, but against Granny’s strict instruction to not touch the stove or even go in the kitchen, I decided I was going to bake a pound cake to surprise Papa and Granny when they got home. Again, I don’t know why. Who knows what causes a 12 year old boy to do anything? So I went into the kitchen and got started.

First, I took the faded index card containing Granny’s recipe out of the spiral bound notebook. Then, I got down the venerable green stand mixer. After that, I went to work gathering the ingredients. Now I had seen and helped Granny bake cakes more times than I can remember, but this was my first time flying solo, so I was nervous about that AND I was disobeying a direct order from Granny, which to be honest didn’t really matter much. I was the first grandchild and only grandchild, at least for a little longer, and Granny’s idea of severe discipline was to look stern and tell me not to do whatever I had done again, then give me a Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookie or three and send me on my way. In my whole life to the day she died, Granny, and Papa too for that matter, never raised their voices, much less their hands, to me. If any child has ever been spoiled by a grandparent, it was me.

So, I had all the ingredients laying around with the mixer and the Pyrex measuring cup and the measuring spoons and at long last I was ready to begin. I flipped the mixer on and put in sugar, then, holding my breath, I cracked an egg. I put that egg, along with its fellow travelers into the mix without a single shell falling in. I alternated between flour and sweet milk just like Granny did and I added the vanilla and lemon flavorings just like I was supposed to. The sweetened condensed milk gave me a bit of a struggle because the lid didn’t want to give in to the ancient can opener, but eventually, it saw the fight was hopeless and yielded its contents. Last of all, I put in the baking powder. Some butter — well, a lot of butter actually — and some Crisco shortening made it into the mix earlier on as well, but I can’t remember when. I had my first cake batter all ready to pour.

I got out Granny’s pound cake pan with the cylinder in the middle to make the hole in the middle of the cake and I rubbed it down with one of the butter wrappers to grease it up real good. Then, I poured the batter into the pan, scraped everything out with the trusty spatula and set the full pan aside to lick the bowl and beaters. I always did when Granny baked a cake, so I absolutely was going to with my first creation. I slide the cake into the cold oven — pound cakes go into a cold oven rather than a preheated one — and turned the oven controls to bake at 350 degrees. Now it was time to wait two hours on tenterhooks to see how it would turn out. What’s more, I couldn’t open the door to check on it because Granny had assured me that would make a cake fall quicker than anything and her oven didn’t have a window in the door!

I washed the mixing bowl and the rest of the dishes I’d used, then cut the TV back on and watched some later morning cartoons and wrestling. The cake was beginning to smell good when I heard Granny return! She came in the house and put her keys down and asked me why she smelled pound cake cooking. I came clean immediately and told her I wanted to surprise her and Papa. She looked like she was going to scold me, but she gathered me up in a hug instead. Like I said, spoiled rotten.

Granny asked me how much longer it was to bake. At that point about twenty minutes remained and I wanted so badly for them to hurry by. Finally the kitchen time dinged and it was time to take the cake out and see the fruits of my labor. I walked to the oven with Granny behind me. I cut off the oven first to be safe and I opened the door. . . . Cake was EVERYWHERE! The cake had blown out of the pan and flowed down the sides. It looked terrible and I wanted to cry; then I noticed Granny’s smile.

She asked me one question: Where did I get the flour for the cake? I showed her the red plastic bin marked “flour” where she got the flour almost every night of the week to make biscuits. She smiled even more broadly. “So that’s the problem!” she said. Then she reached back in the pantry and pulled out a box of flour with the picture of a cake on the side. She looked at me, still smiling and said, “I suppose you put the baking powder in like the recipe says?” I nodded. Then I learned that two types of flour exist: self-rising, which already contains leaven, and cake flour, which does not. What I had done was use Granny’s biscuit flour, which was self-rising, to make the cake AND added baking powder to the mix. Essentially, I had doubled the amount of baking powder in the batter and the result was a cake that rose WAY too much.

We slid the monster cake out of the oven. It surprisingly came out in one piece clinging to the pan. Granny broke off a piece and ate it. She said there was nothing wrong with the taste of the cake; it was just a bit more fluffy. I took a piece and after I ate it, I agreed. I asked Granny what in the world we were going to do with such a seemingly ruined cake? She said, “Well, I guess you are going to learn what a trifle is.” So, I did. We made a trifle out of that over risen cake. For those who don’t know, a trifle is alternating layers of cake and fruit with whipped cream. I’d never seen one before then, but when Papa got home we all ate some and even though I’m not crazy about fruit, I thought it tasted just fine.

Granny was proud of me, but she made me promise not to ever use the stove again! So I did.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

My Favorite Christmas Carol

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One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is the music. Now, unlike in years past when we were lucky to get a scattering of Christmas songs mixed in on the regular radio stations, we now have one station around here which devotes 24/7 programming to Christmas music from November 1st (YES, November) through January 1st each year. They play everything from the old standards to the latest Christmas recordings. Budge and I actually keep a running total of how many times a season we hear the song “Last Christmas” by Wham. We’re up to fourteen for the year as of this writing. Unfortunately, one of the neglected areas of the music the all Christmas, all the time station makes is of the traditional Christmas Carols, the hymns from earlier times like “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Joy to the World.”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of hymns on the radio today. After all, most people these days barely admit Christmas is, at its roots, a Christian holiday. The lights and glamor of celebrity drowns out the real reason this holiday ever started and that’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Because of that, my favorite Christmas hymn is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Of all the songs I’ve heard, none more clearly capture the feeling and true meaning of Christmas than Charles Wesley’s mighty hymn.

Imagine if you will, you are a lowly shepherd on a Judean hillside in the black of night. It’s not that cold because Jesus wasn’t actually born in December because the sheep aren’t in the field in winter. Anyway, you and your comrades are dozing in turns watching over the flocks when out of nowhere the sky lights up brighter than day. The heavens are filled from horizon to horizon with the Heavenly Host singing songs of praise that the King of Kings has been born. One of the angels tells the shepherds where they can find the new babe. Eagerly, they set off to see him. I would imagine only after standing up from where they had fallen on the ground. That is the subject of verse one:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”

It is the second verse that captures the realities behind Christ’s birth.

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”

The final verse tells the truth of why Jesus came, that men no more should die. Not die as in we’ll never face death, but die as in the second, eternal death.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”

I know a lot of people who read my blog don’t believe like I believe. For many of you, Christmas is just giving gifts and eating feasts of food. It is lights and trees and presents. Christ doesn’t matter anymore. Still, I’d like to say that even though many may not believe in Jesus, Jesus still believes in you and you can find Him if you simply open your heart and let the Sun of Righteousness meet you where you are.1

In any event, Merry Christmas and love y’all and keep those feet clean!

My Love Affair With Computers

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First of all let me say this and all future posts on this blog are brought to you on my new Asus Vivobook. This is my early Christmas present from two of my good friends — Cook and Hoppe — original members of the Original Lightsey Bridge Mafia. They saw where I was getting by on substandard equipment to do my posts and decided to do something about it so they went in and bought me this computer, which is probably top three nicest, kindest things anyone has ever done for me. So it’s much easier to post again and now maybe I can increase output since they both want my writing to continue, so thank you very much guys.

Honestly, I’ve always had a love affair with computers. My generation was the early, early beginnings of the personal computer boom. I got my first real computer when I was twelve. It was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It hooked up to the tv since these were the days long before separate monitors became common. It had a tape drive to store any programs I might write and it came with a book to teach how to program in BASIC. That book may as well have been written in ancient Sumerian. Not then and not since have I been able to learn something like that out of a book. I did find a book of ready made programs you could type into your computer in BASIC and since it was mostly games, I picked it up to give a try. I spent four days typing a program into that monstrosity that was supposed to be a Star Trek game. I finished it with eager anticipation and hit the “run” command. That was the minute I learned not all BASICs are created equal. The program crashed immediately and that was pretty much the end of my early attempts at computing.

Now in junior high school at Gray Court-Owings, we had Commodore 64s we got to work on from time to time. My favorite thing to do on them was to play the completely text-based adventure game Zork. My buddy Greg and I played together countless times. We could always get the lantern and we figured out how to put things in the trophy case in the house, but no matter how we tried, we simply could not avoid the Thief who would always appear, take all our treasure, and “slip a stiletto between your ribs.” The screen would announce in big, bold letters “You Have Died!” I never got to play Oregon Trail because that was an Apple program and we were a PC based school.

After writing all my papers on a typewriter throughout high school, I was a teacher’s aide as a senior. Mr. Linville, my physics teacher, had an Apple IIe with a word processor. You could make a mistake and just hit backspace to erase it and type another letter. I had already learned to type in tenth grade with Mrs. Wilson (God rest her soul) and I was delighted to discover the keyboards were the same. From that day to this one, I have never hand written an out of class essay or slaved over a typewriter again. Word processors all the way.

I got to college and met the MacIntosh by Apple. It was love at first sight. I loved the little screeching monkey sound it made when you hit the wrong key or it didn’t like the data you put in. I took a basic computer science class and learned about things way above my head like databases, but as long as I could word process, I was happy.

It was also in college where I met Hoppe. He was the first real live computer guru I’d ever known. He had a complete setup with a PC 386DX. It was a little harder to word process on so I usually kept to the Macs in the library, but this think could play games like you wouldn’t believe! It didn’t hurt that Hoppe was also the first computer pirate I ever met, too. He had a HUGE box of pirated discs (remember those?) he kept next to his computer. It had every kind of game you could imagine: sports games, adventure games, trivia games, you name it, Hoppe had it. I spent hours in his and Wingnut’s room playing DnD Eye of the Beholder and Star Control. Those were the first PC games I’d ever seen. We lost a lot of study time to gaming the three years we were all together. Hoppe also kept a really big electromagnet sitting on top of his box of discs and when I asked him why, he said it was in case the room ever got raided by the government! I didn’t know computer piracy was such a big deal, but apparently it was and all it would take was a hot second to flip the switch on that big electromagnet and all the evidence against Hoppe would disappear! To show you how times have changed, Hoppe came back after Christmas either our sophomore year or our junior year – I can’t remember which and he had a new set up. It was a PC 486DX. The thing I remember most clearly about that computer was it had a 40 Megabyte hard drive! We were all in awe. That was tons of discs worth of space instantly available without the slow disc drive reading them. Plus, 40 Megabytes! We couldn’t imagine any way possible to fill up that huge hard drive. Now, we’re lucky if one document formatted on MS Word is less than 40 Megabytes. Everything is in Gigabytes now, and quickly moving into Terabytes. It was fun while it lasted.

I didn’t mess with computers after I got out of college. I didn’t have a need to in my textile plant job. Then I got my teaching job and we got five computers for the entire faculty. If you wanted one you had to write a proposal explaining how you would use it to help your teaching. I got my proposal accepted so all my tests were formatted and word processed. It was great; especially when I found a program that would average grades on the fly and print progress reports. I gave my kids a progress report each week, because I could, and the parents loved it. The kids, eh, not so much. Back then it was still a stand alone machine. We hadn’t hooked up to the newfangled Internet yet, but that was coming.

When I went to work as a librarian at Bell Street, I became responsible for all the computers in the school. I took that job seriously and worked closely with Computer Services at the central office to keep our systems running better than anyone else’s. I was allowed to build images which are program clones of a certain model of computer’s hard drive. With an image and a set of CDs, I could multicast an entire lab of computers and update them almost instantly. I even worked with Computer Services during my summer vacations for free just because I enjoyed the work. That all crashed down when I got booted out of the district. Ironically, it may have been my hard work with the computers at school that cost me my job. I took lots of time with the computers and I don’t think I was supposed to. I guess I neglected other parts of the job and it made it easier to get rid of me. Computer Services was sad to see me go though. I had the one school they didn’t have to worry about because I kept it running.

I’ve had several computers of my own since that TRS-80 and I actually learned how to use them. Now don’t get it twisted – I never learned to code, much to my sad disgrace, but I loved using readymade programs to do jobs around the house and to write on whenever I wrote stuff. I still have some of my earliest stuff saved on discs that nothing can read anymore. Luckily I’ve got hard copies of most of it. My first “real” computer was a Montgomery Ward Pentium that Mama bought me for Christmas when I was a freshman in college. What I remember most about it was it had twin CD drives and at that time several games were multi-CD. Since I had a twin drive, I didn’t have to keep switching back and forth between discs! I used that computer until the hard drive died on me and back then, I didn’t know how to fix that.

My two favorite personal computers I ever owned were my two Gateway 2000 machines. I still have the stuffed cow the first machine came with. The first one I got was a Pentium II and the second one a couple of years later was a Pentium III. I used to love to call tech support when I had a problem. They were always so cheerful and they always answered the phone with, “Greetings from sunny South Dakota! How can I help you today?” Those were the first two computers I ever opened up and tore into the guts of. I upgraded memory modules and installed second hard drives. If someone didn’t know better, they might look at me and think I actually knew what I was doing! I really enjoyed those machines.

The last ten years I’ve used a series of laptops that got more and more outdated as time went on. Actually, I still keep my checkbook and finances on my last Dell laptop because it runs Windows XP and Quicken 2002 and nothing else I have will. If it ever completely dies, I guess I’ll have to modernize. But now I’ve got this slick Asus, thanks to Hoppe and Cook. I’m going to try to up production since I don’t have any excuse not to now and I know I said it before, but once again, thanks so much guys!

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Giving Thanks This Year

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I haven’t written much new material in a long while. It’s not that I don’t have any ideas, but rather my computer has gone on the blink and replacing it is beyond my means at this season of life. Putting out a post on my phone as I’m doing now is quite tedious since I think faster than I can type, but this holiday begs for a new post so I’ve set myself a goal of giving thanks. Specifically I’m going to list ten things I’m most thankful for at this time. So without further ado, my list.

1. I’m thankful for Budge. We’ve been married 26 years and she’s stood by me through all the tough times. She’s my rock.

2. I’m thankful I had 42 years with Mama. Sometimes it hits me that it wasn’t enough time, but some people don’t get that much with their mothers.

3. In the same vein, I’m thankful I had all my grandparents until I was 24 and Papa Wham died. It makes me sad that so many people never get to know their grands and I’m so glad I had mine for so long.

4. I’m thankful for my home. It may not seem like much to folks, but it’s ours. The roof doesn’t leak. It’s cool in summer and warm in winter. Some people look down on living in a trailer, but I don’t really know any different so it makes me happy.

5. I’m thankful for my friends. I’m not going to start naming them for fear of leaving someone out, but I’ve got some really loyal friends. I’ve been blessed all my life with friends I could count on and though some have drifted away, they still hold a special place in my memories.

6. I’m thankful for my furry babies. Budge and I never had children and I know it’s not the same but we love them as if they were our children. I spend many hours alone and I also fall into some pretty dark moods and having them blunts the loneliness. They don’t talk back in our language but they have a way of letting me know they care.

7. I’m thankful for my beloved therapist and my equally beloved psychiatrist. That may seem odd to some to care that much about two men who came into my life over ten years ago, but they keep me going. Next to Budge, they are the biggest members of my mental support system.

8. I’m thankful for my health. Oh, I have some medical issues but thanks to a good doctor, they are all well controlled. I can still get around on my own and I’m not in constant pain; except for the odd aches that started popping up around 45. I see people who can’t go and do and it reminds me how much good health really means.

9. I’m thankful for my church. The people I see most Sundays, the ones I serve in the nursery with, the pastors who check on me, they all make me feel seen and cared about and that means a lot when you think dark thoughts like I do sometimes.

10. I’m thankful for Jesus. I realize faith in Jesus might not be as fashionable as it once was, but I’ve never been the fashionable type. I’m glad He came and died on a cross for me to have new life. Sometimes I wish I could move on into that new life, but I’m thankful that as long as I have Jesus, I may get lonely, but I’m never really alone.

So, there’s my list. It may seem sappy to some of you, but it’s all true. Those are the things, not all of course, that I care about. Maybe next year I can add some more if I’m not typing on a phone! Until then love y’all, happy Thanksgiving, and keep your feet clean!

#TBT: Halloween at Aunt Nell’s

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I originally published this on Halloween 2009. Since then, Aunt Nell’s grandson, who was living in the house has sold it and left Greenpond for the suburbs. Halloween gatherings at Aunt Nell’s belong strictly to the realm of memory now.

When I was growing up, we lived in the back forty acres of the boondocks. I took some friends home from college to meet my mama over the holidays once and two of them swore we lived in a different time zone, if not another space time continuum. Living that far from nowhere meant that social events were scarce, but for a kid with a sugar craving on All Saint’s Eve, it was death. I LITERALLY had no where within walking distance of my house and we lived so far out we’d have to eat all the candy we got driving around just to survive the trip. So in the era of my childhood, preceding all the newfangled “Trunk or Treats” , the highlight of Halloween for me, my brother’s generation, and my dad’s generation was the annual trip to Greenpond to visit Aunt Nell and drink her Witch’s Brew.

the boys at halloween

Over twenty years ago in Greenpond. My baby first cousin, Blake, is the Blue Dinosaur; my brother, Nick, is the redhead behind him; Aunt Nell is in the witch’s costume; my second cousin, Anna, is next to Aunt Nell and is holding a child I don’t recognize; and Zach, my oldest first cousin, is standing behind Anna.

See, when Daddy and Aunt Cathy, as well as all the First Cousins, were children, they lived in the boonies as well; so they didn’t have anywhere to get candy on Halloween either. In an effort to give the children somewhere to wear their costumes and get some candy, Papa Wham’s sister, my great-Aunt Nell, started dressing up in a witch’s costume on Halloween and hosting a small gathering. She’d put a huge (well, huge for a five year old) cauldron of what she swore was witch’s brew on an open fire in front of her open and detached garage then pop up a huge amount of pop corn and lay out a great stock of candies.

Children — first my daddy’s generation, then mine — would come with their parents and eat popcorn and run around the pitch black yard in our costumes playing hide and seek until we vomited. It was our unofficial family reunion and most Halloween nights, just about every lineal descendant of Granny Mattie would make their way up Aunt Nell’s winding driveway. Rain or shine, she always turned out.

The Witch of Greenpond became pretty much a local legend. Aunt Nell made the cover of the local weekly newspapers and in all the years I can remember, she never missed a Halloween. Time comes for us all though, even good witches, and the year finally arrived when Aunt Nell simply couldn’t take on the night’s festivities. Alzheimer’s Disease had robbed her of the memory of the wonderful times she’d given all of us and the rest of the rural children of the surrounding countryside.

That year, about six or seven years ago now, I think, the pointed hat was passed. Anna, the adorable little blonde standing next to Aunt Nell in the picture, took up the mantle of the Greenpond Witch from her grandmother. Now she presides over the ceremony that has meant so much to so many people for so long. Now, rain or shine (and tonight was a frog-floater) the cauldron still gets lit and the children still come to eat popcorn, chase each other, and drink a cup of Witch’s Brew . . . which still tastes suspiciously like cherry Kool-Aid.

Happy Halloween, y’all, and don’t forget to wash your feet after you come in from trick or treating!

#TBT: Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow!

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Behold the lowly acorn; sign of Fall, food for wildlife, and deadly missile!

Behold the lowly acorn; sign of Fall, food for wildlife, and deadly missile!

This post originally ran October 19, 2009 and, sadly, both Beau and Jack have gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

I love Fall. From now until the end of November is hands down my favorite time of the year. Granny Wham always loved Fall. As soon as the weather got nippish at night, she’d tell Papa it was time to go see the leaves. That meant I’d spend the night with them on an October Friday and we’d get up at the butt-crack of dawn the next morning to head to the Blue Ridge Parkway. As long as we were on the highways, I’d read. I wish I still could read in a moving car, but for some reason, carsickness hits as soon as I look at a page . . . but I digress from my digression!

The three of us would spend all day in the mountains looking at the golds, reds, and yellows all along the mountain roads. Still, this was Granny and she is who I took the lion’s share of my worrying tendencies from, so we’d have to be headed down I-26 towards home before the first sign of dark. Granny didn’t like to travel at night.

So Fall has always held a particularly warm place in my heart from an early age. However, this beautiful season is not without its extreme hazards. In my front yard are three extremely tall and extremely productive oak trees. Overhanging my back fence are about ten or twelve more. Now, while they are a wonder to look at, it is with some trepidation that I venture forth from the safety of the front porch to journey to the mailbox.

You see, these oaks do not produce the dinky little BB sized acorns of the so-called “water oaks” of my youth. Oh, no! These trees shed acorns that, if cast in lead, could have been fired in a .68 caliber Brown Bess musket with no trouble at all. My trees are well over fifty feet tall and when one of those green slugs lets go from a bough near the top, it stands to reach terminal velocity before it makes contact with the ground . . . or my balding pate! Getting cracked in the top of the head with one or two of those little monsters is enough to bring tears to a strong man’s eyes. What’s just as bad, the trees in the back lot overhang my tin-roofed workshop. When acorns hit that tin roof at about Mach 1, they make a crack like a 12 gauge shotgun going off.

Now, this doesn’t bother my oldest fuzzy child, Beau, in the least. He is stone deaf as befits a canine of his years and stature. His kennelmate, Jack, however, goes into paroxysms each time a shot rings out from the tin roof. I have to admit that I find them startling as well. More than once I’ve nearly put out an eye with an Xacto knife as I was cutting and concentrating when one of the green hailstones hit!

Still, the squirrels and deer the crop of mast attracts to my back yard is plenty enough reason for me to leave the trees alone and risk a knot on the noggin or four!

Happy Autumn everyone! Don’t forget to wash your feet!

#TBT Friday Night Lights Shine on the Friday Night Blues

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I originally published this about ten years ago. It’s been 20 years since I taught high school and I still miss kickoff every Friday during the football season.

In the five years since my last teaching contract renewed and I left education, I have endure a crippling wave of sadness during the first week of “back to school.” That sadness is never more acute and I never have to struggle harder to keep bullets out of my head, poison out of my system, or my car at the top of cliffs rather than the bottom than at six o’clock on the first full schedule Friday of high school football.

If you’ve never taught in a high school, I can’t adequately describe for you how important Friday nights are, especially here in the Southland. Any school with a football team is a beehive all day on Friday as the guys (and a girl or two) walk the halls in their jerseys and the cheerleaders wear their non-dress-code-conforming uniforms to school. The day is spent making plans for who is riding with whom to where and who is bringing the illicit substances to the bonfire or house party after the game.

I used to eat up every moment of it. Every Friday for the fifteen years I taught, I was young again for ten Fridays in the fall and as long as my school’s team managed to stay in the playoffs. The kids used to take me back to the Friday nights when my friends and I were the ones planning. From my freshman year through my junior year, I went to more games than I missed. I even went to a game or two my senior year even though the taste of bile and ashes had replaced the once-sweet euphoria by then, but that’s another story.

Several of my friends of those days were football players and one of my lasting regrets is never having tried to get on the team. I was acquainted with many of the cheerleaders and wrote essays for more than one of them so they could keep good enough grades to stay on the squad. My best buddy at the time, Robby, was first trumpet in the band, so I always sat as close to the band as possible. Another regret is never trying to get in the band. I guess I can chalk up my lack of participation to a few things. Some are gifted with athletic prowess and some with musical talent. My gift was, and is, memory. Some call it a gift; I lean more towards curse and agree with the Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett when he says

“Memories are killing things. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

God knows I don’t miss much about high school, but I do miss Friday nights. For those aforementioned years in education, I got those Friday nights back, especially the few years when my schools were desperate enough for warm bodies to ask me to be an assistant football coach. I have a painfully entertaining story of my first game as a JV football coach which involves me, an away game, and a whistle. Maybe I’ll tell the entire story sometime, but for now suffice it to say we lost the game and the night in general was a cascade of fiascoes one atop another. Actually, that phrase pretty much describes my whole football coaching career. Still, it was a lot of fun.

Now though, I’m a civilian. Here it is 6:30 on the first big football Friday. Oh, I know I could go to a local game anyway, but it’s not the same. Something about plunking down your teacher id and walking in the gate for free just adds a special sweetness to the night. The greatest reward, though, is the smiles on the faces of the boys on the field when they catch sight of you on the track or in the stands. Little Johnny may have been the bane of your existence in second block all year, but come Monday, when you tell him how awesome his one tackle of the night was, you’ll have him in your back pocket. Trust me on that one . . . I know from experience.

Go out and pull for your favorite teams and take care everyone.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

# Throwback Thursday: I Hate Summer Passionately

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This was originally posted on July 10, 2010 and, for the record, I haven’t changed my mind in the slightest.

I don’t know how long it’s been since I mentioned this fact, but I hate summer with all my heart. I realize that’s strange coming as it does from a good Southern boy, but I have two perfectly excellent reasons for despising this godawful season that everyone else apparently loves so dearly.

First of all, I am not a small man — not by a long shot. To be quite honest, I’m fat, large, obese, and several other words of varying denotation and connotation all pointing to the fact that I was born 10 pounds and 5 ounces and I haven’t missed a meal since.

Summertime was not meant for fat people. We sweat. Now some of you more proper individuals may “perspire” and some ladies may even develop a “delicate sheen.” Well, honey, I sweat buckets and right now, I’ve got the Zambezi River flowing from my hairline down my back to eventually puddle in and around my nether regions. That’s with the A/C “givin’ ye all she can Cap’n”. Any more strain on the venerable Trane and the dilithium crystals will probably blow and we’ll have to eject the warp core. If I go outside for long in this 100+ heat, you could render lard off my backside.

I hate to sweat. The only time I’ve ever CHOSEN to sweat is when I wrestled four years in high school. Then, sweating seemed to serve a purpose. Any other time, it just makes me miserable. Fat people were built for Arctic conditions. If you don’t believe me, when’s the last time you saw a skinny Inuit? (Nota Bene: “Eskimo” is a derogatory term, which I didn’t know until an exceptionally large Inuit man told me) Inuits live in the Arctic. Ever seen a svelte whale? Know why? It’s freaking cold in the ocean depths where they swim! Nature has selected against fat mixing with heat. Fat goes with cold; skinny goes with heat.

My second reason to despise summer is I am known in some circles as “The Man The Sun Forgot.” I don’t want to say I’m pale or anything, but people afflicted with albinism stand next to me to feel good about their tan. The few times I’ve gone cave exploring, my glowing body was the third emergency light source. Folks are always asking me why don’t I take off my shirt when I’m outside. The simple answer is the last time I removed my shirt outside on a bright sunny day, I got a call from Houston Space Center asking me to please cover myself because I was blinding the crew of the International Space Station and they couldn’t conduct their experiments.

You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I am WHITE and I am FAT. I went to the beach several years and many, many pants sizes ago and, even then, when I took off my shirt just for kicks, a big guy in a frock coat appeared out of nowhere and started chasing me down the beach waving a harpoon and screaming, “I’ve found ye at last! Thar she blows! A hump like a snow hill!” If that wooden leg hadn’t slowed him down enough for the beach patrol to grab him I hate to think what might have happened.

Now I realize many of my gentle readers have a simple solution to my lack of melanin; just lay out in the Sun a little and tan, right? Um, did you even read the first section about heat? An ex of mine once asked me to lay out in the sun with her. I told her if she wanted to break up with me, just say so. Even if I didn’t mind roasting myself like a suckling pig with pineapple rings and a Granny Smith in my mouth, there’s the little matter of blistering sunburn. During my childhood and well into my teens, the strongest SPF sunscreen was 15. I would get COOKED right through 15. It was like slathering butter on roasting corn ears.

Luckily for me, times have changed and sunscreen is now stronger. Still, if I want a decent chance at remaining non-boiled-lobster color, I have to wear Bullfrog 55 SPF and, no lie, I get pinkish through that after a couple of hours. Oh, and when I do burn, it doesn’t turn tan. Nope, most people are burn, tan, burn, tan darker. I am burn, peel, burn worse, get sun poisoning, peel some more, risk drowning in an oatmeal bath.

I’ve got a ton of sunburn stories, but I’ll tell one and let it go at that. When I was six, we had the first above ground pool I’d ever seen. Of course, Daddy didn’t bother to hook up the filter, so we had to drain it once a month to get the slime molds out of the bottom and refill it . . . but I digress. Two friends and I happily splashed around in said pool from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. I hadn’t put ANY sunscreen on, but that was okay because I had my FAVORITE shirt of the moment on just like Mama had told me to do. (Well, she did tell me to wear a shirt.)jersey

This shirt was a real, live reproduction Clemson football JERSEY. Now for those who don’t know, this was 1977 and football jerseys back in the day had a “mesh pattern” which basically means I was in the Sun on one of the brightest days of the year wearing no sunscreen and a shirt complete with HOLES all in it! Now, I have a genius IQ, but as one of my best friends used to point out, I lack the common sense to get out of a shower of rain. I figured since I wore it like a shirt, it WAS a shirt, and it would keep me safe from the ravages of the sun.

It didn’t.

When Mama came home from shopping, she called us in the house (trailer, whatever). She took one look at me and burst into tears. I couldn’t see my back so I had no idea what was wrong. This was one time ignorance was not bliss. I had developed a water blister through each one of the hundreds of holes in the shirt. The shirt was literally fastened to my back and shoulders by water blisters poking through the holes. I went and stood in the shower under straight cold well water for thirty minutes trying to get the blisters to go down.

They didn’t.

Mama finally had to take the shirt off me. Just so you know, ANYTIME your mother tells you beforehand, “Baby, I’m so sorry, but this is really going to hurt,” you can bet your britches it is REALLY GOING TO HURT. Well, with water still pouring on me, Mama took hold of the hem of that jersey and snatched it straight up over my head in one classic “skin-a-cat” motion . . . and every one of those blisters ripped open and yellowish blister fluid started running down my back. If you’re wondering, yes, I cried. I cried like a baby. My back looked like steak tartare for a week. THAT, gentle readers, is just one of the many reasons why I despise summer, why I don’t go outside if at all possible from June to September, AND why I NEVER get into a pool unless it is DARK O’CLOCK!

Keep cool and wash those feet!

Love y’all!

TBT: Of Aiding and Abetting

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Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red.

I’m rerunnning this post because of all the news lately about Roe v. Wade. It’s a emotional topic among people all across the spectrum. I know i won’t make any friends with this post, but hopefully I won’t lose any either. No one seemed to notice last time I posted it.

It might surprise people who know me and those who follow this blog to learn that I am an accessory before the fact to premeditated murder. The case never came to trial; in fact, no arrests have ever been made, but lately, to quote Eminem, “I’ve been cleaning out my closet” and the guilt I’ve toted over this incident in my life — in my youth (not an excuse, just time frame) — has grown heavier over time. Writing about this unhappy episode isn’t going to change anything. It won’t erase my part in a sad story. In fact, I don’t know what is behind the overwhelming compulsion to preempt my usual World War I post to air out this particular load of dirty laundry. I just know it’s time I told my part.

Anyone now expecting sordid details, copious finger-pointing, and salacious name naming is going to be sorely disappointed. I will name no names but my own. The guilt others feel, if any, is theirs alone to continue hiding or expose to the world. To my knowledge, less than ten, maybe fifteen, people know any of this story. Again, as far as I know, only about five know the entire tale and I’m not one of them.

I was one of the few members of my circle of friends to have a job during high school. The majority of my closest associates relied on regular, sizable handouts from upper middle class parents for spending money, gas money, and any other teen essentials. Daddy provided me with a car and when I wrecked it, he bought me another one. Mama paid my auto insurance and kept a roof over my head. If I wanted to party, date, or in any other way raise Hell, the funds to do so were up to me to obtain so I went to work the week after I turned 15 and I worked as hard as I could for the next twenty-five years until my deteriorating mental health landed me on government disability.

Late in my senior year of high school, I attended a huge bash at the spacious and beautiful ranch of one of my inner circle of friends. Alcohol flowed freely, but I consumed precious little because I was in a black mood. I had begun a downward spiral that would take two decades to land me in Carolina Behavioral Center, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was still operating under the assumption I was a prickly, hard-to-like asshat.

In any event, one of my comrades in arms for most of my life showed up at this party with his flavor of the month. After a few visits to the keg and a shot or two from the pickup truck tailgate bar, he and said girl disappeared, as had several couples during the night, to “explore” the ranch grounds. They eventually found their way to the hay barn and proceeded to give literal meaning to “a roll in the hay.” When I saw them next, a couple of hours later, they were both wearing looks of deep chagrin . . . not horror, not disgust, and not worry . . . they just looked chagrined. Upon a conversational investigation, I ascertained during the aforementioned hay roll, their preferred barrier method of contraception had suffered a catastrophic failure and they worried about the ramifications of this potential disaster. A couple of hours after this revelation, I left the party and by morning had forgotten all about their quandary.

My selective amnesia continued for approximately six weeks until the phone rang unusually early on a Saturday morning. My friend was on the other end of the line, “Wham,” he said, “Could you come over please, I need some help.” I’ve made it my policy throughout my life to go whenever and wherever any of my friends call. This willingness to demonstrate my loyalty has caused me no small amount of suffering through the years, and I’ve seldom encountered any like-minded reciprocity from those I have helped, even those I’ve helped greatly, but I can only control my behavior. What others do is between them and their conscience.

I arrived at my friend’s home a short time to find him still lying in bed wearing a perfectly haggard look on top of his t-shirt and sweatpants. He got straight to the point, saying, “Wham, I need to borrow some money.” Now you know the purpose for that seemingly random paragraph about my work history above. I laughed a bit and replied, “Why don’t you ask your dad or grandpa? They can give you a whole lot more than me and you won’t have to pay them back!” He looked at me and simply said, “I’m trying not to involve my parents.” I nodded. So, he’d gotten a speeding ticket or some such and didn’t want to catch Hell and endure the inevitable grilling lecture that would surely accompany a bail-out.

So I asked, “Okay, how much is the ticket and how fast were you going?” He looked away and shook his head, “It’s not a ticket, Wham. It’s something else.” I found that odd, but — you know — loyalty. I said, “Well, okay. How much do you need then?” He then looked me in the face and said, “$247.00” I know my face blanched because that’s what it always does when I’m overcome with some emotions. See, I’d had conversations with other friends and acquaintances about the high cost of living, and one particular item came up a few times and it always cost $247.00. He went to speak, but I put up my hand.

He fell silent and I pulled out my wallet — I didn’t carry a man-purse back then — and pulled out twelve twenty-dollar bills and a ten. It was basically my entire week’s pay with a little overtime. I folded it and handed it to him as he took it, I said, “I don’t want to hear anything else. Don’t bother saying anything. I don’t want to know anymore than I do right now. Never speak to me about this again, don’t bother trying to pay me back, but don’t you dare come to me if you ever have this ‘problem’ again.” He nodded his thanks and I left with a sick stomach knowing I’d just become an accessory to murder — premeditated murder.

I don’t know other people’s politics or views on what I paid for. I know — if statistics are to be trusted (ha,ha) — probably half of you think I did nothing wrong. In some other cases, I’d be happy to agree with you, but not this one. This was a healthy mother and father with no genetic issues. No life was on the line. No one was in any danger . . . except the danger of scandal. To follow through with this would just have been “inconvenient” and might have “shut some doors” in the future. Both were headed for college, after all. Never mind this “problem” could have been the answer to some infertile couple’s prayers and dreams. This is the type of adoptibility social workers and agencies dream of.

The scandal though. The gossip. The “inconvenience” of the matter. Nine months are too long to hide and people were bound to find out. After all, who were they hurting? This was the late 1980’s, not the 1950’s. They weren’t interested in marrying each other, which — and don’t lose the irony — my friend’s parents did years earlier when they had the same “problem.” I happened to be with him the day he found his birth certificate and his parent’s marriage license and did some quick math . . . it wasn’t pretty. As far as I know, the two of them only went on one more “date.” No one was the wiser and no one seemed bothered at all. To this day, if it bothers him or her, they’ve done masterful jobs at hiding it.

It’s bothered me for years though, and even though I know it is theologically untenable, I can’t help but wonder when I’m at my lowest points if my part in such a sin — yes, SIN, S.I.N. damn it all, call a spade a spade for God’s sake, right is right and wrong is wrong whether you’re an atheist, Buddhist, agnostic, or Hindu– has something to do with why I don’t have children today. Rationally, I know it doesn’t work that way, but sometimes I have a hard time being rational.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.

#TBT: How Can We Stop School Shootings?

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I’m rerunning this post because of the shooting Tuesday at an elementary school in Ulvade, Texas. The current death count stands at 19 students and 3 teachers. I know I’m a generally negative person but I don’t think this is the last school shooting.

This latest school shooting in Florida has hit me hard. I was once a high school English teacher and later on, a middle school librarian. The first five years I taught, we never heard of a student going into a school and gunning down classmates. Then came April 20, 1999. Columbine High School erupted in gunfire as two students brought guns to school and killed 13 people before killing themselves. “School Shooting” entered common American lexicon. Nothing has been the same since.

I don’t teach anymore and while I miss that career mightily, one aspect I don’t miss is the existential dread of wondering when was it going to be my school’s turn. When were my students going to look to me as gunshots rang out? When was one of my students going to snap and bring a reckoning down on our school? I don’t miss that helpless feeling that crouches at the bottom of every teacher’s heart: “What happens when it’s us?”

That feeling lies there because the sad, simple answer to my titular question is a terse “We can’t. We cannot stop school shootings.” I fear that ship has sailed for a few tragic reasons.

First, we can’t stop school shootings because we can’t pass any meaningful gun control laws in this country. This depressing fact doesn’t matter, however, because even if our politicians miraculously put aside their differences and ignored the tidal waves of money some of them receive from the gun lobby, it simply wouldn’t matter. Passing a law, any law, has zero effect on behavior. Legislate that people cannot chew bubble gum and honest people will give up their Bubble Yum.

Unfortunately, another segment of society will cram every stick of gum possible into their mouths. Laws only affect lawful people. Pass a law forbidding anyone under age 21 from owning a firearm and we will prevent exactly zero school shootings because the people who deign to follow such a law aren’t going to shoot up a school anyway. As long as we worship the Almighty Dollar in this country, an underage person who wants a gun can get one . . . someone angry enough to kill his fellow students will find a way to get money and turn that money into a gun.

More gun control laws will not stop school shootings because they will only affect those willing to abide by the laws and by definition, this excludes school shooters.

Some people feel banning “assault weapons” like the AR-15 and its clones and derivatives will end the problem. It won’t help. Just for clarification and to appease any gun nuts who read this, the term should actually be “assault ‘style’ weapons” or guns modeled on military arms. A true assault rifle would be something like the US Army’s M-4 carbine, itself a descendant of the Vietnam Era M-16. Both are fully automatic weapons. Pull the trigger and they will fire til the magazine is empty.

The truth of the matter is banning AR-15 style rifles will only send shooters looking for other weapons. Several semi-automatic handguns have magazines which hold twenty or more rounds of ammunition and these handguns are much easier to conceal and so easier to get into a school, especially a crowded school area, than a rifle. The Ruger 10/22 is a .22 caliber rifle which can be outfitted with magazines up to 100 rounds and at schoolyard ranges, a .22 Long Rifle round is every bit as lethal as the 5.56mm round the AR-15 uses.

So let’s ban all guns! As long as the Second Amendment remains enshrined in the Constitution, that’s not going to happen. Even if it were repealed by some miracle, the bloodshed and division of the country attempting to collect the now illegal guns would entail makes such a possibility deadlier and less palatable than risking school shootings.

Some people have even gone so far as to advocate arming our school teachers. This is a preposterously, unthinkably terrible idea. It is not difficult at all to get a concealed carry permit in most US states. Theoretically, any teacher could get such a permit and, if the laws were changed, be allowed to carry a weapon into the classroom ostensibly to confront and repel a school shooter.

Again, this is a horrible idea. To get a CCP, a person has to sit through a class and then shoot a paper target at a range. To repel a school shooter, a teacher would have to kill someone — possibly someone they know and have tried to help before. Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the problems like victims getting caught in the crossfire or teachers simply missing their targets and hitting innocents. Just focus on one thing; any teacher carrying a weapon MUST be ready to KILL another human being.

Understand, the school shooter has made up is mind. He is here to kill as many people as he can or maybe just mark some specific names off a list. He’s made his choice and confronting him will only put a teacher in the direct line of fire. This is not a pistols at ten paces duel or a gunfight on Main Street out of a Clint Eastwood movie. To take out a school shooter who has already started killing, you don’t confront him or tell him to put down his weapon. You get behind him or outflank him and shoot him in center mass or the head until he falls down dead. If he never sees who shot him, so much the better.

Teachers are not wired up to do that. Teachers, not all, but most, are nurturers. They got into teaching to HELP people, not KILL them. Taking someone’s life will trying not to lose one’s own life is an incredibly difficult choice to make and execute. Hesitate an instant and you die and maybe all the students you are trying to protect. When it comes to actually killing a student, I honestly believe 99 out of 100 teachers are going to hesitate or freeze up and become a casualty. It doesn’t mean teachers are weak or cowardly . . . not everyone is a killer. Soldiers must be trained to kill. Overcoming the aversion to taking another’s life is one of the first things trainers in the military have to overcome. Teachers aren’t meant to kill and putting them into a situation where they have to deal with that choice will not go well.

So does this mean we abandon hope of stopping school shootings altogether and just live in fear? To a certain extent, yes. Practically speaking, absolutely. The only way to effectively stop school shooters is to get them before they start. Schools as they are now are what military and law enforcement people call “soft” targets. They need to be hardened. Schools need metal detectors at every entrance. During the day, schools should be under lock-down conditions. No one in the hall means no one gets shot. No unlocked doors means no one sneaks in. Ban bookbags. Amend dress codes to ban baggy clothes and jackets that make it easy to conceal weapons. If the students raise hell, if the parents raise hell . . . show footage of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora’s movie theater, Las Vegas’ concert, this latest shooting in Florida, etc. Make them answer one question: “Would you rather be fashionable or would you rather bleed out on the floor of the cafeteria with a bullet in your spleen?”

I fully realize none of that is going to happen though. In fact, give it two weeks or so and everyone is going to go back to business as usual . . . until the next preventable school shooting takes place.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.