Thunder Across the Copperhead

Excerpt from Don Miller’s soon to be released, Thunder Across the Copperhead, a historical novel set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the textile strife the depression helped to trigger.

Near Copperhead Creek, 1933

Sela Jean Morrow sat in the easy chair, wondering if this was the way the condemned felt awaiting execution.  The thought was accompanied by a shiver having nothing to do with the cold.  “Why did I allow Sarah and the Vicar to talk me into this?” 

It didn’t matter, the Vicar had pointed out. “The church could raise the missed payments, but it would only put off the inevitable.” 

Later the Bishop had resonated the same before saying, “It’s better to own part of something than all of nothing.”  What other options did she have? 

“You can turn to whoring in Elizabeth City,” Her mother’s voice echoed in her head.

Sela thought, “Or I can offer to share the marriage bed with a man I don’t know in exchange…doubt there’s much difference.”

Looking around the study she tried to get a feel for the man who resided within.  Books lined the two inner walls, more in low bookcases under the windows and behind the desk.  There were dozens of volumes.  Most had the worn look of use.  There were many subjects and Lucas Perry had them organized according to author and subject.  Histories, historical novels, mysteries, and science fiction seemed to be preferred.  An organized man…everything in its place.

Rising, she unbuttoned and removed her coat, carefully laying it on the arm of the chair.  Moving about, she noted that aside from the books, there was little in the room to give her a clue to the man’s personality.  Old photographs of his family sat on the mantle, she recognized a five or six-year-old Sarah and Lucas at ten or eleven.  A photograph from Lucas’s boot camp graduation, taken from such a distance she couldn’t tell which Marine Lucas was.  Framed discharged papers, and a shadowbox containing battle ribbons, badges, two chevrons, and three medals. 

Sela Jean paused at his desk.  A lamp and a stack of unlined letter-writing paper along with a composition notebook sat on the right, a pen and inkwell in the center and a framed, hand-colorized photograph of a pretty, young, blond nurse sat to the left along with a fuzzy, black, and white of Lucas and the unknown nurse sitting at a table, gayly smiling into each other’s eyes.  Picking it up she wondered….

“Please put that down,” Lucas’ deep baritone caused her to jump.

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw him standing inside the glass doorway.  She put the photograph down but decided she would not allow this man to intimidate her even if it was his home.

Turning toward him, she leaned against the desk before saying, “She is a beautiful woman.  You both look so happy.  Who is she?”

Lucas noted the deep, alto voice before answering, “Was, who was she?  She was the love of my life.  I’m sure Sarah told you about Jenny Malone.”

“Why would Sarah tell me about your love life?”

Hearing Archie’s Dodge crank, Sela Jean glanced out of the window.

“I told the vicar I’d take you home.  I hope that is agreeable.” Before she could answer, he continued, “Miss Morrow, I’m not a player of games.  My earlier conversation with my sister leads me to believe she is in league with the vicar and bishop and your cockamamie plan.”

“Their cockamamie plan.  Mr. Perry, I’m just trying to survive and have no plan.  And yes, it is fine.  I can always walk from here if necessary.  I’m three and a half weeks from being kicked to the ditch with no option other than joining the working girls in Elizabeth City or moving to the county home.  It may well be cockamamie, but it is all I have.” Her voice was filled with anger.

“Please sit and cool off. I’m Lucas, okay?”

“I’m Sela then.”

Moving back to the chair, she sat stiffly upright, her hands together in her lap, and fixed Lucas with her dark eyes.  Lucas found it disconcerting.  She was a most attractive woman with her coppery complexion, freckles, and upturned nose.  Her lips were full though pulled into a tight, straight line.  What was more disconcerting was the intelligence and defiance he saw in her eyes.  Suddenly the silence between them became oppressive.

As if needing a barrier, Lucas moved behind his desk and sat down, resting his elbows, and clasping his hands in front of him.

She broke the silence with a question, “You have a large library.  Have you read them all?”

Leaning back in his seat he answered, “Yes, some more than once.  I view them as windows to a world I’m not likely to visit.  The same with the Radiola.”

“Most of the men I’ve met are not readers…unfairly, the thought uneducated comes to mind.”

Nodding agreement, “I would probably qualify.”

“You don’t sound uneducated.”

“I am self-educated.  My mother instilled a love of books and words.  As I traveled with the Marine Corps, she would send me books.  Unless I was on liberty, reading and letter or journal writing were the only outlets I had other than card playing or craps, neither of which I am particularly good at.”

“What are you good at?”

“Interesting question…one I’ve not thought about.”  Sela Jean noticed he squirmed as if the question made him uncomfortable.  Finally, he relaxed and leaned back in his chair.

“I fix things.  I seem to understand the inner workings of machinery even if I’ve never seen the machine before.”

“And now it is proposed you fix me….  Would you come over and sit next to me?”  He hesitated but stood and came to the chair next to hers.

“Show me your hands.”

Again, he hesitated before asking, “Pardon?”

Smiling for the first time, she asked, “Am I speaking in tongues?  Let me see your hands.”

He held them out and she took one and then the other.  Her hands were not soft like Jenny’s but callused like his own, her nails cut short and, in some cases, broken.  Still, her touch was as soft and light as a hummingbird.

Releasing them she sat back, “My mother always said you could tell a great deal about a man by his hands.  Yours are familiar with work…but then I knew that.  They are also clean as are your fingernails.”

“What does that mean?”

She smiled and shrugged, “That you have clean hands and fingernails…hygiene is important.  You take the time to clean them.”  Her smile made him laugh.  He had a hardy laugh and it irritated her that she liked it.

Nodding toward the shadow box, she asked, “What do your medals mean?”

“That I survived, I guess.  Except for the wound and overseas chevron, I never understood why I received them, and others didn’t.”

“What are they?”

Lucas stood and took the shadow box down, wiping a bit of dust before returning to sit beside her.  He realized she could get him to talk.  He wasn’t sure if that was good or not.

Pointing, “These are service ribbons at the top, the three medals are the Navy Cross in the middle, the French Legion of Honor on the right, and the Croix de Guerre on the left.  The Wound Chevron is on the bottom left and Overseas Combat Chevron is on the right.  The lanyard is the Fourragère which was awarded by the French to the Fifth and Sixth Marines.”

“Do you miss the Corps?”

“Maybe…until I think about Jenny and Haiti.”

“Jenny and Haiti?”

Until this novel is published, Don’s two other historical fictions, South from Sutherland’s Station, and Long Ride to Paradise are available at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

My Body is not a Temple

“Middle age is when a narrow waist and a broad mind begin to change places.” – Anonymous

At best I’ve never had a narrow waist and my mind may be broader than it has ever been. Middle Age? I passed that landmark a while ago.

My body was never a temple, more like an old barn, some of its weathered cladding falling off, the tin roof turning reddish brown with rust, and one door sagging on its hinges like a drunken sailor on liberty. If I could see inside, broken down stalls would be filled with old, dried-up horse apples and cow patties. Let’s face it, middle age is in my rear-view mirror along with a steadily approaching figure known as the grim reaper.

With the approaching fall, the dreaded “physical” season is upon me. It began midweek with a full body “search” for nasty squamous cells, basil cells, or any other carcinoma that might be found. As I looked into a strategically placed mirror, I saw an alien old man who’s pale and scrawny shoulders and chest had fallen into his waist and his waist into his ass. My only six pack is cooling in the fridge. Not a pear shape exactly, more of a triangle. Note to self, stay out of eyeshot of mirrors, it is easier to lie to yourself that way and not as depressing.

The scan went well considering. I stood in my underwear in front of my extremely attractive and pregnant dermatologist and her attractive nonpregnant nurse. I didn’t know I could suck in my stomach for that long. Oh, the vanity of it all and they are young enough to be granddaughters.

One suspicious area was biopsied and three pre-cancers burned off, one squarely in the middle of my forehead.  Cue the “Did you forget to duck” comments.

Early next month I have my general physical with all its bloodwork and a week later a physical with my cardiologist with the sticky and ice-cold patches reading electrical impulses for the EKG. It is a known fact they store them in a freezer. I don’t expect any unwelcome news, but they do trigger reflection.  The physicals will all confirm what I already know, I’m old…but I’m still alive.

Two quotes about aging by baseball great, Satchel Paige are stuck in my head. Born in 1906, Paige pitched his last professional game in 1966, just weeks before his sixtieth birthday. Due to the Major League’s color barrier, he pitched for over twenty years combining time with the Negro Leagues, barnstorming and semi-pro ball before getting an opportunity to pitch in the Majors for the Cleveland Indians. Owner Bill Veeck knew a draw when he saw one and knew Paige would put people in seats.

Paige was forty-two and two days old when he threw his first pitch, still the oldest rookie to debut. When reporters asked about his age, Paige replied, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” Sage words. Time is a human construct used to torture us with thoughts of our own pending mortality.

A 42-year-old rookie warms up for the then Cleveland Indians

In the two and a half months left in the 1948 season, Paige finished with a 6–1 record and a 2.48 ERA, pitched two, nine inning shutouts, struck out forty-three against twenty-two walks and gave up sixty-one base hits in 72 and 2⁄3 innings. And Cleveland? They won the World Series in six games; the last time Cleveland won a World Series. Not bad for a rookie of any age.

The second notable Paige quote rattling in the empty drum that is my mind, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I know the grim reaper is drawing closer, but I rather not know when he will place his bony hand upon my shoulder. No need to dwell on the inevitable. I hope I wake up dead one morning with a surprised look on my face.

Three additional quotes from Satchel Paige:

“You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.” (Metaphor for life)

“I ain’t ever had a job, I just always played baseball.” (When you enjoy what you do it is hard to call it work)

“Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way. And don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.” (Don’t just pray when things are bad.)

Don Miller’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

Of Cockleburs, Beggar’s Lice, and Orb Weavers

“Sometimes it looks like I’m dancing, but it’s just that I walked into a spider web.” ~ Demetri Martin

The thermometer and calendar lie. Are we at the end of summer or the beginning of fall? Labor Day is in our rear view, but it is still early September and hot and humid. There is a hint of fall in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and a whisper of what will come in the morning breeze. There are harbingers that say Autumn is just around the next leaf strewn curve.

I thought of the harbingers as I picked Beggar’s Lice off Quigley. Little triangular seed pods that lie in wait in the late summer or early fall for some unsuspecting souls, as in Quigley and his favorite humans, to walk by. They are sticky, adhering to a puppy’s fir or a human’s shoelaces and socks. It is how the plants migrate, being carried from hither to yon by some accommodating animal.

Beggar Lice

They are harbingers, not as ooh or aah worthy as say, a vee of geese flying south for the winter or the Blue Heron that stops off at the lake for a bit of R and R before heading to swamps and shorelines to our south. But they are harbingers just the same.

Picking the Beggar’s lice off my shoestrings and Quigley’s coat, I thought of earlier Autumns in and around the cornfields of my childhood home. Picking and shucking dried ears of corn. The kernels removed from the cob would be ground into corn meal and grits, the cobs ground into hog feed. Nothing wasted.

Quigley the Australian Tri-Paw

In and around the fields were other plants, cockleburs, we called them. Usually, cocklebur was preceded by descriptive adjectives that had I been overheard using would lead to a “whoopin’” or a mouth filled with soap. Mostly I just sinned in my mind as I pricked my fingers.

Inch long, spiny seed pods that didn’t just stick to clothing or fur but grabbed ‘aholt’ and held on for dear life. Spiny enough to pierce bare skin, they were almost impossible to safely remove from boot laces and socks and why we wore denim in those fields. Painful harbingers of fall.

Cocklebur waiting to “git cha”

As Quigley, my bride, and I made our way around Lake Lookup I noted purple and yellow fall wildflowers, purple American beauty berry, fallen acorns and hickory nuts, and the scarlet Cardinal plant that grows in the marsh. I should have paid better attention, walking into the first spiderweb of the day.

This is the time that yellow and black writing spiders and orb weavers build their webs and I had just destroyed an orb weaver’s hard work. Quigley watched stupefied as I danced away attempting to remove the silky web…only to walk into another.

I had the uncomfortable thought that I was going to end up like David Hedison in the 1958 movie, The Fly, trapped in a web screaming “Help me, help me!” as a spider advanced toward me. I also wished Quigley were a bit taller or that my bride might walk ahead of me.

I don’t have a fear of spiders but spider webs across the face are an uncomfortable feeling and I walked into a dozen before my hike was over. The good news is they will be reconstructed before I begin my next walk. Good for the spider, not good for me.

Orb Weaver and Web

My figs have ripened and been picked as have the muscadines. The smell of them cooking down for jellies and jams fills the kitchen with a delightful aroma. Did I mention the black walnuts are falling like bombs?

Soon the produce stands around my little piece of heaven will transition from peaches and apples to pumpkins. Pumpkin spice is already available at local coffee shops and Blue Moon is offering their Winter Pumpkin Ale. Not all harbingers are good.

Don Miller’s most recent release is “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” and may be downloaded or purchased in paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1PhzBApVfH1AYmpXdi6sDbZWknrqQT5u9DSgvUR2f_uF0Od9ApcLIu1BE

Rant Alert: Why Teachers Have it so Good

“Teachers got it good they [teachers] get a great pension they never pay in the social security they get free lunches they only work 9 months a year and have weekends off.” – Facebook PhD

Note to self, don’t read the comments, it will take time out of your life you can’t get back and cause irritations you simply don’t need. Mr. Facebook PhD, “Have you ever used commas or periods?” Names have been changed to protect the mentally deficient.

I feel the need to clarify…no, I feel the need to rant since Mr. Facebook PhD refused to engage. Remember, don’t read the comments!!!!

Teachers do have pensions. In South Carolina where I taught until retirement, we contribute seven percent of our salaries to have a pension. Seven percent. Even after I retired and “double dipped”, a misnomer, I paid seven percent into my pension which didn’t increase my retirement one penny.

We also contribute to our own healthcare after retirement to the tune of $100.00 per month on average. It is, with Medicare, great healthcare unless you are becoming deaf, going blind, or losing your teeth.

Nationwide, most teachers pay into social security although there are some teachers that don’t, about 1.2 million. Their states chose to roll the dice that their state offered pensions would pay better. A few rolled ‘seven come eleven’ and others have thrown ‘snake eyes’.

Free lunches? “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” and most teachers have little time to gulp it down anyway. I’m sure there are school districts that provide teachers with free lunches but for over forty years I bought mine or carried a paper bag with a sandwich, yogurt, and a pack of Nabs. Oh, for those days of rectangular pizza slices with a side of corn and a cup of peaches.

I normally ate on the move making sure little Johnny or Jenny Sue didn’t do something stupid. My favorite duty station was restroom monitor…eating my turkey sandwich while breathing in ‘ode de urine’ making sure little Johnny wasn’t lighting up a blunt or flushing someone’s head in the urinal.

The final nail that caught my attention, the fallacy of having three months off in the summers and free weekends. “There ain’t no such thing as a free summer or weekend.” There are courses to be taken, instructional workshops to attend, standards to be reviewed, and yearly plans to be made during the summer…and now you must review your syllabus making sure nothing you teach or none of your reading material suggests CRT, Marxism, or why little Johnny has two dads or two mothers.

Weekends? Papers to be graded, grades to be recorded, and lesson plans that must be turned in first thing on Monday morning.

But what about your planning period? Parents to contact or professional learning communities or data meetings to attend…a quick trip to the restroom? Planning? Rarely does planning happen. Did I mention that most weekday evenings suck too?

As a side note, because many are confused, teachers are paid for the one hundred eighty days they teach and whatever planning days are added in. In our state, South Carolina, it is one hundred and ninety days. Federal holidays? Nope. Summer? Nope. Our one hundred and ninety days are divided into twelve months so that we don’t starve in the summer. Still many must take summer jobs just to supplement their families’ income if they can work it around workshops, we aren’t paid for…or paid little, to attend.

So, while we are paid over the summer, we are not paid FOR the summer. Further note, many school districts are moving to year-round school. Did the pay go up…nope, nope, nope, they are still on site for one hundred and ninety days.

Much is being written and there are myriads of opinions about teacher shortages. Good, experienced teachers dropping out, few new teachers entering the profession. Anyone who slept through my US History class has offered an opinion.

Many teachers have pointed to the increase in lack of respect from politicians, administrators, parents, and students. While lack of respect has certainly increased, it is not new. Teachers have never been recognized as ‘real’ professionals…we aren’t even recognized as real state employees unless it benefits the state.

When I first faced a class of smiling faces some fifty years ago, I was an anomaly of sorts, a male in a profession populated by females. At the junior high school there were only four males on staff. A principal, an assistant principal, a physical educator, and yours truly.

Male teachers were recruited to coach, not to provide mentorship in the classroom unless it was a blue-chip athlete. Coaches with history degrees were a dime a dozen which is why I added a physical science certification to put beans on the table…ridiculously small plates of beans. Yes, I was originally recruited to coach but am proud of my teaching career. I didn’t teach to coach, I coached to teach.

Why might you ask? Teaching was viewed as women’s work, a nice side job to keep the ‘little lady’ out of trouble and supplement the household income provided by the male who ‘did the real work.’ This was an improvement over the days when ‘schoolmarms’ had to quit if they got married. The view that teaching was a side job is one of the reasons teachers haven’t been paid as professionals until recently, if at all. Presently, women make up seventy-five percent of the nation’s teachers.

Another problem in what was once ‘textile country’, you don’t need to have much education to run a machine and uneducated workers don’t expect to get paid as much. “Keep ’em stupid, keep them poor” might have been a mantra.

That belief is a holdover from the textile days which ended in the Eighties and why we have a challenging time finding qualified technicians and engineers to fill our needs. We must recruit from other states and countries to maintain our 24th-place ranking in economic outlook.

Teachers tend to be looked down upon because of the “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” mentality which has been around much longer than the past decade. A family member once asked me in all seriousness when I was going to get a real job. Another asked me when I would graduate from teaching at a junior high school.

Public Education is in decline and parents, politicians and those who believe education should be used to fatten certain people’s billfolds (private schools) are throwing the dirt in its grave. With three hundred thousand teaching vacancies, many states are lowering their teaching standards to allow anyone who can breathe the opportunity to teach. Many parents believe this is fine as long as their schools provide free childcare and a couple of free meals during the day. One more slap in the face of dedicated teachers.

Public education hasn’t helped itself. Bloated administration costs, emphasis on testing instead of problem solving, passing everyone to elevate graduation rates, and a decrease in reading and math skills upon graduation have not endeared public education to certain groups, including me. We continue to lag in math and reading. There are more Facebook PhDs on the horizon, but these won’t be able to add and subtract either.

Add to this toxic brew, the politically motivated accusations of indoctrination, grooming, teaching CTR, teaching Marxism, etcetera, ad nauseum, I understand why good teachers are getting out and teacher education programs are sucking air. I had two choices of callings when I graduated from college. In this environment I would pick the other one.

I would like to emphasize three points that exemplify the problems found in South Carolina. This is an incomplete list.

We have formed a task force in South Carolina at Governor Foghorn Leghorn’s insistence to study teacher recruitment and retainment. There are no presently teaching teachers on the task force. These members are political appointees and the two who have taught haven’t in several decades.

A new state superintendent will be elected this November and one candidate running does not yet have the qualifications to run and no teaching experience. She has never stood in front of a classroom. I pray she will not meet the qualifications in November because in our state, she will be elected because so many people vote straight party ballots.

If education is fully funded in South Carolina this year, it will be the first time in over a decade.

If you want to know what is wrong with education try something different and it is not a task force. Ask a teacher and involve frontline teachers in problem solving…something we’ve really never done and probably won’t. Until then we will exclaim with pride, “Thank goodness for Mississippi.”

To sum up, a quote from former teaching peer, Brent Boiling, “Teachers at *** used to be like gourmet chefs…. creative and free to do their jobs as professionals. Now they’re McTeachers.”

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1pVsy-a3ZtRJ98EGHW-xrQS0R-IUosd_iDVGMICpugfL0tbofyolue8Yw

Tastes Like Chicken

Shane Walsh: [about eating frog legs] When you get down to that last can of beans, you’re gonna be loving those frog legs, lady. I can see it now… [imitating Lori Grimes] “Shane, do you think I could have a second helping, please? Please? Just one?”

Lori Grimes: Yeah, I doubt that.

Shane Walsh: [to Carl Grimes] Don’t listen to her, man. You and me, we’ll be heroes. We’ll feed these folks Cajun-style Kermit legs.

Lori Grimes: I would rather eat Miss Piggy. Yes, that came out wrong.

Snappy Repertoire from The Walking Dead

Warning: This is not about The Walking Dead but about my addiction to cooking shows, food, and memories involving frog legs. They do taste like chicken.

Not that I’m ever going to prepare Chicken Kiev or Beef Stroganov, but I watch cooking shows allowing The Pioneer Woman to cause Pavlovian responses cooking brisket with cowboy baked beans featuring burnt ends or Giada De Laurentiis preparing anything. Just stand there Giada, just stand there. Another type of Pavlovian response.

My thoughts raced down a pig trail after a conversation with a Northern friend about what we might have eaten at a restaurant had it been named the “Roadkill Café.” Much of our banter centered around squirrels and possums along with my favorite saying, “flatter than a toad frog on a four-lane highway.”

I pointed out that I had grown up “country rich”, never having to resort to roadkill. I admitted to having been permanently scarred for life cleaning fish and turtles, plucking and gutting chickens, skinning squirrels, and slaughtering hogs to supplement the protein requirements of our diets.  I feel fortunate my family drew the line at possum. I did occasionally eat frog legs, the subject of this rabbit hole I fell into.

Later in the day, as I looked for a recipe for fried frog legs, I stumbled across a YouTube video featuring one of the Duck Dynasty boys preparing frog legs. I watched it. Fifteen minutes of my life I’ll never get back. I realized frog legs may taste like chicken, but no one ever shows the nasty side…gigging and skinning little green Kermits or wringing little Henny Penny’s neck.

For some reason, the video reminded of a young lady whose bright light had burned out, who asked, “Why do people raise beef? We can go to the supermarket and buy it.” I’m sure there is a logic there that only she understood. I’m also sure one can find pre-skinned frog legs somewhere but somewhere else there is a frog walking on stumps.

I was first introduced to frog legs when I was quite young. An uncle home from college and a couple of cousins had spent the night gigging frogs…and I suspect, participated in activities my grandmother would have frowned upon involving distilled spirits. Still, they were sober enough to deliver a croker sack of frogs to my grandmother who skinned them and prepared them along with grits and eggs for breakfast.

I remember awaking to the smell of something I was unfamiliar with frying. Sautéing frog legs heavily peppered were literally twitching in butter in a big cast iron frying pan. They were twitching, I kid you not.

Gross alert, view at your own risk

Did you know that Mary Shelly was inspired by twitching frog legs while writing Frankenstein? Sorta inspired. The frog legs weren’t frying but according to the Smithsonian Magazine, Shelley was inspired by the concept of galvanism—the idea that scientists could use electricity to stimulate or restart life. Galvanism, using an electrical current, would cause frog legs to jump. Feel smarter? I wonder if they fried them afterwards.

The French consider frog legs to be a delicacy, but this, according to differing theories, has nothing to do with calling the French the derogatory term, Frog. It is more likely due to the Frog that was a part of the counter-revolutionary flag flown during the French Revolution. No matter what theory do not call a Frenchman a Frog. It’s not nice.

While I was in college, I went gigging with a couple of fraternity brothers and a chemistry teacher. In a flat bottomed jon boat, armed with gigs and flashlights, we paddled the perimeter of a small lake looking for little green eyes glowing in the reflection of our lights. We would paddle in close, gig the frog, and put him in our own croker sack. We might have partaken of some distilled spirits like my uncle but I’m not sure.

All was grand until a snake crawled into our boat. Instead of using an oar to stun the snake and put him back into the water, one of my frat brothers pulled a concealed pistol and put three bullet holes in the bottom of our boat.

The snake? Perfectly safe and still in the boat under the croker sack. The rest of us? Paddling for dear life to get back to the landing while avoiding the snake before we sank. Since that time, I’ve not gone frog gigging again and have only eaten frog legs on an all you can eat seafood buffet a hundred years ago.

It seemed safer to look online and inquire where I might find some preskinned frog legs. Ten dollars a pound plus shipping? Imported? Geez. I guess that is why they are a delicacy. Well since chicken also tastes like chicken, I think I’ll grill up some wings instead.

An excellent recipe for frog legs or chicken wings https://foodchannel.com/recipes/cajun-fried-frog-leg-recipe

The Food Channel

Don Miller’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1rEhMYcMA8cZ4B9q3hI4Csq2sS3MBrJdAEpNjnvu1wqcIuf_yHjBO_HtY

The “Worser Days”

“But I’m here to let you know
That I’ll love you like you deserve
I’ll treat you right
And on a cold, cold night
I’ll shower you in hugs & kisses
And soup”

― Talia Basma, Being

It’s not soup season but here I am thinking about it anyway. Who am I kidding, any season is soup season. I won’t bore you with the triggers, what I call the Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes of my mind. But let’s talk soup…cooter soup and my grandmother.

On my morning walk, Quigley my “tripaw” Blue Heeler and I watched a huge snapper swim by, and it took me to bygone days. It took Quigley nowhere; he was busy rolling in the grass.

My memory was of a morning spent fishing and the memories the activity triggered. As I fished, an alligator snapping turtle paid a visit that day too, as did several Eastern water turtles.  I’m sure they were looking for a free meal from a stringer that wasn’t there.  I was fishing “catch and release” remembering the trials of cleaning fish. I remembered when cooters were food and harder to clean than fish.

We called the turtles cooters back in the day, from the West African word kuta.  With a modern change in usage, I must be careful when using the name and ready for an explanation. 

Momma cooter looking for a place to lay her eggs this Spring

The snapper’s shell was as big as an old-fashioned Caddy hubcap.  My grandmother spoke in my head, “Don’t let a cooter bite you ’cause it won’t let go till it thunders.”  I answered back as I often do, “I don’t know about that Nannie, but I know he’ll take a finger off.”

There was a morning when, as a child in short britches, I hopped up on a rock and it began to walk off. I screamed at my Nannie. She, when seeing the object of my distress, with sack dress held up above her knees, ran off and came back with a butcher knife and a seventeen-gallon wash tub. I was about to be taught the intricacies of butchering and cooking a cooter.

In the present day, I made the mistake of casting near the turtle trying to scare him away.  Big ‘uns like that don’t scare. Despite his size he was quick in the water.  The old mossback submerged and took the worm and hung himself on the hook.  I tried to keep him from heading to the bottom expecting him to break my line.  The line didn’t break, instead he stripped the gears in my old reel and hunkered down on the bottom to wait me out.  Looks like I’m in the market for another Zebco. 

My grandmother would make cooter soup from the turtles she caught or those that happen to wander through her yard.  During her day, Southern farmers survived the depression days preparing cooter soup, or catfish stew, or fried rabbit.  She still made use of the free proteins that reminded her of the “worser days”, before and during the Great Depression.  At least she stopped short of possum. She said it was too greasy.  I’ll have to take her word that it is.

I understand turtle soup is now considered a delicacy.  To my grandmother it was free meat from when times were hard. As I researched recipes, I saw a restaurant fare, Mike’s Bait Shop Turtle Stew…it looked better than its name might suggest. There are many different recipes, but I guess my grandmother’s version would be the best…just because.

He looks like he could eat at Mike’s Bait Shop…I mean eat the bait shop.

I remember a big iron pot on an outdoor fire boiling water to dip the cooter in to loosen its shell and skin.  It was a lot of work to crack open the shell and skin and bone the meat, being careful to remove the eggs and liver.  Rich looking dark meat would be parboiled and ground like hamburger, sautéed with onion before being cooked like vegetable soup.  Soup heavy with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, and okra to thicken.  Maybe celery or carrots thrown in for good measure.  Basic “everything but the kitchen sink” soup with a twist.  Everything harvested from her garden, sometimes even the turtle.  The old cooter tasted like chicken with the consistency of beef…or was it the other way around?

I thought of this as I waited for the turtle to resurface. How long can a cooter stay down?  Still waiting after a half hour, I tugged on the line and felt the load on the end move.  Hand over hand I hoped the line wouldn’t cut me if he ran.  He didn’t run and I pulled him close to the bank before taking out my MacGyver knife. I cut my line as close to the hook as I dared, fearing he might exact his revenge by taking a bite out of me and watched the old mossback disappear into deep water.

Walking back home in the midday heat, I carried no fish but there was a spring in my step as I thought the best life has to offer sometimes requires a lot of work…and provides sweet memories too. An evening in late summer came to my mind.  Carrying two stringers of hand sized blue gills, near eighty total.

Two old women who were probably not as old as I imagined, in flour sack dresses and wide straw hats and a small boy sharing the load.  Sitting out under the privet hedge and stars next to the garden cleaning them all.  Nannie, her friend, Miss Maggie Cureton, and a young boy.  Listening to them laugh and tell stories of the “worser days” that didn’t seem so bad.  Enough fish for three families to feast on the next day.

 A memory to feast on for life.

“Change is the salt in the soup of life.”
― Gyles Brandreth, Have You Eaten Grandma?

If you liked this reflection of bygone days, you might like “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes.” It and all of Don Miller’s writings can be purchased in paperback or downloaded at

“Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard”

“My daddy says that when you do somethin’ to distract you from your worstest fears, it’s like whistlin’ past the graveyard. You know, making a racket to keep the scaredness and the ghosts away. He says that’s how we get by sometimes. But it’s not weak, like hidin’…it’s strong. It means you’re able to go on.” ― Susan Crandall, Whistling Past the Graveyard

I am doing a lot of whistling past graveyards… to act or talk as if one is relaxed and not afraid when one is afraid or nervous. I’m not sure I’m afraid or nervous, but I am aware…too aware…of the passage of time. Aware that the sands left in the hourglass are dwindling…so maybe there is a little fear and nervousness.

I’ve lost three childhood idols in the past week. Bill Russell, Nichole Nichols, and Vin Scully. I knew none of them personally, but their passing brought pain and a sense of loss, and worse, introspection. Introspection…something I try to avoid.

I’m at an age when I cannot deny my own mortality, but I don’t like thinking about it.

Many of us think we are going to somehow outrun the Grim Reaper but as my best friend says too often, “We ain’t getting out of here alive.” The image of the Grim Reaper in my rear-view mirror has grown closer as I have grown slower. Still, attempting to outrun the Grim Reaper seems to be an effective way to live my life no matter my age and beats waiting around for the scythe to reap me.

Age…I’m at an age that I cannot deny I’ve lost a step or five. First thing in the morning I’m a bit unsteady. I no longer hop out of the bed anticipating the day, I ease out and try and sneak up on it.

When I meet up with old farts, I compare the way they look or move. Compared to many of my contemporaries I’m in fairly decent shape and I could beat them all in a five-yard sprint. With that and a nickel I can buy a piece of bubble gum. I remember when I could buy five pieces of Bazooka for a penny. Why does everyone my age look so old and who is that guy in the mirror?

Life is good but there are the pains that go with a lifetime of normal abuse, and I think mine might lean toward abnormal. Too many repetitive athletic endeavors have ruined my joints, too much fried food has clogged my arteries, too many cigars and brown liquor has addled my mind. I should have taken Billy Noonan’s quote more to heart, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

When someone dies, known or unknown, I tend to compare ages. Well, old Bill was eighty-nine, he was seventeen years older than me. Seventeen years…that’s a long time. I still have time. Then I look back and I realize the past seventeen years have passed in the blink of an eye. I also realize, I’m not guaranteed any time other than what I have with this breath. No amount of whistling past the graveyard will change that.

I’m not afraid of dying. I admit I’m afraid of dying badly, I hope I don’t long for death to come. Dying in the arms of a passionate woman might be the best way to go.

I believe there is “something” after death. Science says energy and mass can be neither created nor destroyed, they can only be changed. I believe conservation of energy will transcend death…or is that more whistling past the graveyard? Is that in a closed system?

Whistling or not, I’ve made plans. My will has been made and I ‘ve requested a gathering of friends, a gathering I intend to attend…even if it is as a small pile of ash. A bottle of Gentleman Jack will be cracked open, toasts made to the dearly departed and funny stories told at my expense. When the bottle is empty, I have instructed my bride to transfer my ashes to the bottle and place them in a cool location. I fear I may need a cool place as I ride through eternity.

More Whistling past the graveyard with Jimmy Buffett.

For more of Don Miller’s “Corny” pone, https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3mOJBeCIdYFmtmjd13NuoyUMu5KPAYDTwo_9yA_jnZ2oftvitbyBMjllY

That Tug of Football

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.”
 Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

It is the time of year that I feel like I should be doing something else. High School football practice begins today. I haven’t set foot on a practice field in twenty-two years, but I still feel the tug.

I was involved with football for over half my life, first as a player and then as a coach. Now I’m just a spectator…and not a particularly good one at that. I can’t remember the last time I physically went to a game at any level. I choose to watch the game from the comfort of my recliner. I like the game still, but I don’t know the kids and I’ve found that while the game is important, it is more important because of the kids and coaches that I knew.

So many memories flood me.  There are too many memories to try to enumerate and pick even on that stands out more than others.

Thousands of want to be football players will brave the late July heat and humidity, the bruised and aching muscles to experience the highs of victory and the lows of defeat. Some will win it all, some less than all, a few won’t win at all, but I believe most will be better because they made the effort.

Kids in helmets, shorts, and tee shirts lined up today on fields wet with dew. Next week they will add pads, amplifying their discomfort and the sounds coming from the field. Waves of heat will shimmer above the grass, the sun turning the field into a sauna as the practice goes on. Despite the dew and humidity, the insides of mouths become desert-like no matter how much water is consumed.

The greenest grass you were likely to see, the painted lines blinding with glare in the morning sun. Sleds, dummies, ropes, and chutes sitting about waiting to be utilized. There is never anticipation like the first day of practice…unless it is the first game. There is anxiety and fear, but they are overcome by the joy of competing…and the first collision.

During my days as a player and a coach, we tended to use the word war metaphorically when describing football. I’m sure coaches and fans still do but we’ve romanticized both too much. Football is not life or death, war is. Quoting Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” I know he was talking about what we call soccer, but it fits with my line of thinking.

Football during my early days as a player and a young coach wasn’t war…but it was close. It wasn’t a game of finesse, more like World War One than the present-day battlefield. Football was a “line it up” and “ram it down their throats”, anything goes kind of game with the forward pass thought of as a trick play. The game was about imposing your will, not trickery. To quote George Orwell, “[Football] has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

Orwell might have been a bit harsh, but I can’t deny coaching football right up to the line of committing a felony while preaching fair play. I coached the way I was coached, and all my peers coached the same way. Some of our players might say we stepped across the line on occasion. I can’t count the number of times I yelled, “Put a facemask on him” (now illegal) or felt an adrenaline rush when someone put a hit on the opposition that clapped like thunder and echoed through the stadium.

The game has become more dignified since I hung up my whistle. In some ways it doesn’t resemble the game I played but then the game I coached didn’t resemble the game I played, either. All things change and I am not saying the rules changes are bad. They are not. They are simply different, and, in many cases, they were necessary because of coaches like me.

There are things that haven’t changed. Moving that odd, shaped ball is not as much about the plays being called or stopping the opposition with the perfect defensive call. It is about execution. It is about digging deep inside when you are tired, bruised, and bloodied, and still finding a way to get it done.

Football relies on teamwork and always has. Eleven people operating as one. It relies on you trusting the guy next to you and him, trusting you. The game is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It is about being willing to metaphorically sacrifice yourself for the good of the team.

The game teaches lessons and can be a cruel instructor when it does. One lesson, the most important and cruelest is the one we should all learn: Sometimes, you can do everything right, but you still lose…and the opposite is true too. Sometimes you muck it all up and it turns out fine. It doesn’t seem to be fair…kind of like life sometimes.

I miss the interaction, the comradery, the coaches, and the players. The good-natured banter that we, as a society, seem to have lost the ability to tolerate. It seems we are all offended about something.

If you want to know how to have a good relationship with people, how to get along, visit a good team’s locker room. People work out their differences for the good of the team. The important stuff is what goes on between the chalk lines. Everything else is just a distraction. Good teams aren’t distracted.

I’ve never been more alive than when I was laughing and crying with the team. I miss the Friday night lights. I just don’t miss July and August practices.

I wrote my first book at the urging of a student who thought my stories were humorous or uplifting. “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” The book was about my career as a teacher and a coach and the people I was fortunate to have run across. I should have quit while I was behind.

Don Miller’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2USUuECtVZ30kyPLYDROKXQctOe6UaAbOiLHQ-IBV5nLr78HJ56V18iGs

A Decadently Sweet, Exquisite Pleasure

“To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.” ― Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

I must add, “and one of the exquisite pleasures of the Southern summer.”

Last week I picked my first home grown tomato. I dined on the first tomato sandwich of the season. Both sweet and tart…in the past week I have dined on at least one tomato sandwich daily and have included them in other dishes. One can never get enough of a good thing.

This week I picked my first fig and ate it in the early morning as suggested by Elizabeth David. The fruit was untouched by the morning sun. Covered in dew it was still cool from the nighttime temperatures. It WAS a decadently exquisite pleasure. I picked more than I could eat at one time but for some reason the picked figs I eat later don’t seem to be as decadent as the ones I eat fresh from the tree.

The Brown Turkey Fig I intend to enjoy…now.

My trees, I have two, came from cuttings my grandmother started for me over thirty years ago. She laid a small limb down on the ground and put a rock on it. When roots formed, she snipped it loose from the tree and I brought it home to transplant. Her tree came from a cutting her mother gave her and I am still trying to get a cutting to give my daughter.

I’ve described the fig as decadent, an odd word to describe the fig considering its religious overtones. Adam and Eve covered their nudity with fig leaves after sampling the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In western culture the forbidden fruit has been portrayed as the apple.

Considering that the fig was cultivated well before the apple, it is quite possible the apple has received a bad rap. The fig might have been the forbidden fruit Lucifer No Shoulders successfully tempted Eve with…if so, decadent might be a perfect word. The fig or the fig tree is mentioned some two hundred times in the Bible, the apple less than ten.

Okay, for the biologists in the group. A fig is technically not a fruit. It is an inverted flower…whatever that is. If it looks like fruit…tastes like fruit…

In the Quran, the fig is considered THE sacred fruit. Buddha rested under the Bodhi Tree, a fig tree whose DNA still exists after three thousand years. It was under this tree the Buddha gained enlightenment. Both the Hindus and Jains consider the fig a holy fruit. The Greeks so loved the fig they enacted laws forbidding the export of them.

A painting of the Buddha under the Ficus Religiosa. The “tree of awakening”.

As Christianity began to view nudity differently than say…the Greeks, religious paintings and statues featuring nudity were redone, some even destroyed in the attempt. Many fig leaves were added after the fact to cover he and she parts.

I’m not sure David needed a covering for his man part.

My figs are Brown Turkey figs. I don’t know why they are called Turkey figs but guess it might have to do with country of origin. Figs are associated with Greece and Asia Minor was awash with Greeks for a thousand years before the Turks of the Ottoman Empire descended upon them.

I’m sure the Greeks brought their fig tree cuttings with them, fig trees that came from Egypt or North Africa to Crete to Greece and then on to Turkey. These became known as Brown Turkey figs. Turkey is one of the top four fig producers worldwide.

I could be wrong but I’m glad someone brought them to Spain and from Spain to Mexico. From Mexico it was only a turkey’s hop, skip, and jump to California. Spanish Franciscan missionaries brought the fig to southern California in 1520, leading to the variety known as the Mission fig. California produces ninety-seven percent of commercial figs sold in the United States. If you like Fig Newtons, thank the Franciscans.

Ain’t cultural diffusion wonderful!

Brown Turkeys normally have two crops. The first, the crop I’m feasting on now, features large brown/yellow fruit on the outside, light red, almost pink insides. Oh, those insides, sweet and sugary, but not so sweet they set your teeth on edge. One site I was reading described the taste as “decadently sweet, providing flavors of hazelnuts and confectionaries.” I just ate one and didn’t get the taste of hazelnuts. I just describe it as good, especially covered in dew in the pre-dawn light.

The second crop provides more numerous fruits but smaller in size. Fruit that is perfect to wrap in bacon and roast in balsamic vinegar. I mean, figs and bacon are perfect together. I still go out in the pre-dawn and eat a few raw before I harvest.

My figs are a labor of love and of luck. Luck primarily. Our climate is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge and is not conducive for figs. Several times over the past thirty-five years my tree has been killed down to the roots by a late freeze or the first crop decimated by a killing frost.

Despite my worries the tree would not recover, it always has. In some ways it reminds me of my grandmother who somehow recovered for ninety-eight years. I would never describe her as decadently sweet, but she was an exquisite pleasure, and my predawn fig always reminds me of her.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve ~ Aureliano Milani , 1675–1749

For a humorous guide on how not to gather figs, you might like Ha, Ha, Ha! Stupid Man Goes Boom! https://cigarman501.com/2020/08/16/ha-ha-ha-stupid-man-goes-boom/

Don Miller’s Author’s page is found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3Sku_ycekhc9FkHrr-nv6_eKa65eciZwTRigrKR9zYwwmglFkhWSfcJ0k

Salvation Between Two Slices of Bread

Gloria was sure she wanted but to read and dream and be fed tomato sandwiches and lemonades by some angelic servant still in a shadowy hinterland.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Beautiful and Damned)

The Trinity has arrived to save my soul. It was late coming this year and it may be blasphemy or sacrilege to speak of it in such a way…I don’t care. My deliverance is as close to a religious experience as…college football.

The heat and humidity are damning me to lethargy as I retreat to my recliner and air conditioning. When I am forced to venture into the outdoors, swarms of gnats cloud my vision and cause me to sneeze as I inhale them. Tiny vampires suck the blood from me, but I don’t become one of the undead…thankfully or not.

Stinging critters attack from both the air and land…some from underground…damn you, yellow jackets, minions from hell.  To top it all off, I found a tick on my person, all bloated and ugly, an incarnation of Satan himself.

I need the “Balm of Gideon” to erase all my ills and I might just have spied it. I need to be delivered from my sins and the object of my rebirth has appeared in my suffering garden.

Cherokee Purple Tomato

I was late planting due to wet weather and now we are suffering through a drought. Thunderstorms filled the skies with flashes of lightning and ear-splitting thunder…only to slide south or east, anywhere other than over my garden. Too much of one thing when you need the other, prayers unanswered.

There was a two-week period when the garden was left to its own devices due to a family emergency. My grandmother would be unhappy to see the grass in my row centers and when I returned, I found that my rabbits had eaten my green beans. A pox upon me and my laziness too. The weeds have overrun me.

The garden has suffered as have I, maybe worse as it has been set upon by the plague of squash bugs. Poxes, plagues of insects, and drought. Does sound quite Biblical.

Little green tomatoes finally appeared but haven’t gotten much larger until recently… I would not call them large. As I walked by, I saw a flash of red in sea of green. A baseball sized orb of goodness. A small goodness but I didn’t care. A ripe Cherokee Purple tomato. Nectar of my Southern gods, manna from heaven. Cherokee Purples are what my bride refers to as those “ugly” tomatoes. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I reckon ugly is too.

I reckon it is pretty ugly. Kinda looks like a monster…or demon.

Deep reddish-purple skin with a green top, I carried it quickly, holding it carefully as if I were Sir Galahad protecting the Holy Grail. This was my balm, my soothing elixir, my anodyne. I knew exactly how to prepare it…a tomato sandwich, or as we said back home, a ‘mater sammich. I just need to let it cool to room temperature, so I don’t bite into hellfire and brimstone.

I finally had the last member of the trinity, a tomato to join white bread and mayonnaise. Not just any mayonnaise mind you, Duke’s Mayonnaise, the one with the yellow top. If you use Hellman’s or Miracle Whip, you might want to pray for the forgiveness of your sins. As for me, I believe it is a miracle anyone uses Miracle Whip. Mustard? Heresy!

Two slices of Sunbeam bread, you may use any white bread as long it is low in nutritional value. Its function is just to hold the mayo and tomato anyway. Whichever bread you choose should be a fresh, soft bread with little texture as it will become soaked in tomato and mayo juice. Wheat, pumpernickel, or rye simply won’t work.

I use Sunbeam because I love “Little Miss Sunbeam” gazing at me like a little blond angel while I drip tomato juice all over myself as a celebration of my baptism.

Little Miss Sunbeam

Unlike grape juice and communion wafers from my Methodist past, the tomato sandwich is the modern sacraments of a backslide soul…with a glass of sweet, lemon tea, the Southern Champagne, to wash it down. I will add a shake or two of salt to bring out the sweetness of the tomato and black pepper because I can.

I choose to eat it over my kitchen sink watching the heat outside my window ripple the air. My spirit soars like the thermals above a highway. Tomato juice and mayonnaise drip onto my small plate…that is, the juices that miss my shirt front. A heavenly stain upon me…the sign of my tomato god.

Oh my ‘mater sammich, how I love thee, praise be thy name.

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” Louis Grizzard

A short history lesson. By the end of the nineteenth century, most Europeans, especially those of the upper classes, believed tomatoes were poisonous. After a long period of stigma, scientists finally discovered that tomatoes were the victims of bad information.

The bad information? Affluent Europeans used tin alloy dishes (pewter), which contained high levels of lead, to store food and to eat from. Because natural tomatoes are highly acidic, when they are put into tin alloy containers, they can react to the acid and cause acute lead poisoning. (Pewter no longer uses lead)

Another short history lesson. A tomato is a fruit…except in South Carolina. In my home state, it is a vegetable by legislative decree. It must have been a slow day at the capital.

Don Miller’s latest offering is “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” and may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0yXYm7o67oNCZe580f0IHGFtOAndQ4-x_K4txNuTEUZlTfZIvoD-apLtU