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

Old Screen Doors, Friends, and Mayonnaise Sandwiches

“How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it. How many slices in a [loaf of] bread? Depends how thin you cut it. How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.” ― Shel Silverstein

Shel’s words put me to thinking of old screen doors, flapping in the breeze. I like quotes…other people’s quotes because I’m not bright enough to create my own. I’m a lot like an old screen door. How many slams do I have left?

The old door’s paint is an silver gray that was once white. In places bare wood shows, the paint worn away from the many hands pressing against it. I remember the slam it makes as it shuts behind you. A shout from one of the grownups, “Quit slammin’ the door!!!!”

A portion of the screen shows rust, ready to crumble if touched. The spring that pulls the door shut is sprung, not doing its job as well as it did when it was first hung.

My hinges are still intact but operate with a rusty squeak. Like the old door, with a little help, I’m able to do the job of filling the space I was first hung to fill. Just push the door closed gently and don’t make me move too quickly.

I don’t know how many slices of bread I have left in my loaf. I’m sure those that I have are dry like toast, and a bit moldy. Looking in a mirror, I’m thinkin’ moldy hardtack. Is it an age thing to contemplate your future as you look back on your past?

As the size of the loaf decreases, I wonder, “Is it better to slice them thin or cut the slices thick?” I do love my carbohydrates but to carry the metaphor further, “Isn’t it what is on the inside of the sandwich that makes the sandwich?” A fresh tomato sandwich is just a mayonnaise sandwich if you hold the tomato. Isn’t the bread there to soak up the sweet juices of the tomato and the tartness of the Dukes Mayonnaise? There may be a metaphor there too. Doesn’t our outward glow come from the juices within?

The rest of Shel’s quote deals with what is on the inside and I’m not sure about that either. “How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ’em.”

I’m not doing a tremendous job of “living” my days well. If living them good requires productivity, I’m empty. I have plenty to do…I’m just not doing it. I choose instead to frolic with my new puppy or author essays that you people don’t read. Well, I must do some grass mowing and weed eating…tomorrow.

I have two close friends, my bride, and the legend Hawk. I’m lucky to know two people I can count on…outside of my family…maybe. Granted, they may grumble a bit…especially my bride. I feel inadequate when I compare their friendship to my friendship toward them. Is it enough to just be there? I feel I should do more. Are they investing more than I?

I need to be less contemplative. I feel inadequate when it comes to my family too.

Elbert Hubbard is quoted, saying, “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” I do agree. It’s good to have someone to talk to who won’t judge you and holds on to my secrets like a miser pinching a penny. Thoughts I would never tell my wife I tell Hawk, and vice versa.

Friends are comfortable with each other. Comfortable to sit and listen and reframe from commenting. No opinion, no commentary, no judgement. Just a simple nod of the head. Comfortable to tell the truth when asked without fear of someone getting their nose out of joint.

Comfortable like your favorite jeans…or a worn-out screen door. They don’t even seem to mind when it slams behind you. Okay, maybe I’m a better friend than I supposed. I listen and nod my head a lot.

Now if I can answer the question, “Cut the bread thin or thick?” I think thick…go for the gusto and make sure the tomato is thick too…add a grilled hamburger with lettuce and onions. You get from life what you put into it. My grandmother would have said, “You reap what you sow.” I would say, “If you don’t take the time to plant them, there won’t be a tomato slice in your sandwich.”

Don Miller writes on various subjects in various genres. His author’s page may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2Tt2GKJxfLHrqnRj07OkDGGWGHSd2QDPwTSQgohR3DMnLhAvDoeDL8nGY

As American as BBQ

“Forget baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.  For a Southerner, it is barbeque.”

Let’s clarify immediately and with great fervor, barbeque is not an event; it is a dish. I don’t care what our Northern neighbors say.  It is not a backyard gathering.  You don’t go to a backyard “barbeque.”  You go to the backyard to eat barbeque. Barbeque is a dish created by the soft whispers of the angels who trod before us and is as close to heaven as I wish to get until death.  Good barbeque is a gift from heaven…it is not a place. Be reverent my children.

It is the morning of July 5th and as I write this, I’m in a barbeque coma courtesy of Carolus’ ribs and Jamie’s pulled pork…and potato salad courtesy of Carol Ann.  Other significant coma contributors included blueberry cobbler and brown liquor.  There were many other contributors and only contributions I would have added would have been mayonnaise and vinegar slaw and hash over white rice but that is a personal choice and not a coma breaker.  It is a tip of the hat to my roots where barbeque came with mustard sauce and helpings of hash over rice.

It was the first Bennett family Fourth of July backyard cookout in two years.  The Bennetts are our adopted family and I’m not sure who adopted whom.  It was good to see folk we hadn’t seen in two years even though there was a bit of “post-Covid” trepidation.   Sitting outside under shade trees and swapping stories soon reduced my anxieties…or maybe it was the brown liquor.

Backyard cookout.  See how I said that?  A backyard cookout.  You go to a cookout…not to a barbeque.  You don’t even have to serve barbeque at a cookout, you can grill things like pork, chicken, beef, roadkill, or tofu.  But grillin’ ain’t barbequin’.  Barbeque is slowly cooked animal parts, pork in my part of the world, over wood coals.  Slow-cooked until the meat just gives up and shreds easily with two forks or falls off of the bone without any help from anything other than gravity.  Sometimes eating high on the hog involves parts found low on the hog.

There is a certain barbeque etiquette.  None etched in stone, and it varies from place to place but it would behoove you to learn the area’s rules before attending a cookout serving barbeque.  See how I said that? 

Generally, the rules involve sauces, rubs, or sides.  It can involve the meat, Texas is mainly beef, for instance, other areas might be a goat or lamb, yuck, but here in South Carolina, it is pork.  I reckon we all eat chicken and you can slow cook yard bird.

There are sauces and then there are sauces.  Nothing to argue over.  Pick one or experiment. Sauce varies here in South Carolina.  Vinegar base, pepper base, both together.  Mustard base, light tomato base, heavy tomato base, depending on the area.   In the home of my mother, the general rule was a mustard sauce with pork, tomato sauce with chicken.

The mustard base is considered by many to be truly South Carolina’s sauce…may be.  German immigrants brought it from the Fatherland to the midlands.  Our new visitors told the older inhabitants they were from Deutschland, which was mistaken as Dutchland, and the reason the fork between the Broad and Saluda Rivers became known as the Dutch Fork. Dutch Fork…Deutsch Fork…”You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe.”

The mustard sauce changes to vinegar and pepper sauces on the coast, light tomato, which is vinegar and pepper with tomato added, in the Pee Dee area, heavy tomato in the West and Northwest portions of the state…with a bit of brown sugar, root beer, or brown liquor added…sometimes.  People are mostly steadfast in their allegiance to one sauce although I admit to experimentation on occasion.  If a person serves you an exotic barbeque sauce like that Alabama White Sauce, thank them even if you don’t like it.  It is the Southern way and good etiquette.

Steadfast allegiance but I’m not willin’ to fight a Civil War over it.  No one should argue over sauces.  It is almost like arguing about politics except with politics no one wins.  With barbeque, everybody wins.  Just don’t drown the meat in the sauce.    It is meant to enhance the flavor, not cover it up…unless it is bad barbeque.  One rule etched in stone: Never pre-sauce a sandwich.  The amount of sauce is a personal choice.

Sides?  I’m guessing we could argue all day. In the South, potato salad is a must.  Corn on the cob, fried okra, baked beans, and dill pickles are quite acceptable.  I fancy the pickled medley that includes pickled cauliflower and pearl onions.  Just don’t call it giardiniera.  Sounds too fancy for barbeque and you can leave the pickled carrots out of mine.

To slaw or not to slaw, that might be the question?  I think slaw is a genetic thing.  You are born to put slaw on your pulled pork sandwich, or you are not.  Kind of like sugar or vinegar or mayonnaise in your slaw.  Me…vinegar and mayonnaise and yes, I want it on my sandwich.

Hash or Brunswick stew?  It is pretty much Brunswick stew everywhere other than the Carolinas. Once again, everywhere else is wrong.  It’s hash always.  Unrecognizable pig products cooked with potatoes and onions until they meld together with certain spices passed down by the ghostly hands of our past. Served over rice…white rice of course.

What is not up for debate, fellowship.  You shouldn’t eat barbeque with someone you don’t like which brings me back to the Bennett clan.  I like the Bennett clan.  I taught with the patriarch, Carol Ann, and coached and taught her two sons Jamie and Carolus.  Through them, my bride and I have become members of their extended family.  I’m honored to have been invited to their July 4th celebration. Barbeque reminds me of home and the Bennett clan reminds me of family.  It just doesn’t get much better than that.

I need to take a nap.  My barbeque coma is about to win out.

Barbecue or Barbeque.  I spelled it barbeque because it is a bit archaic, like me, and because it was spelled that way where I grew up.

For books by Don Miller https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3xEUv3gUa4wrDNp0oXEa2Rbv1hcunRf64Zlr3wl2hNbsCYZwGlgIDwNqw

Deep Impact

 

If you hope to be successful in life there are people who impact you.  I don’t know how successful I was but I certainly had people who guided me, mentored me, people I wanted to emulate.  Marilyn Koon Hendrix had the impact of a pile driver as far as my life is concerned.

I don’t know what I expected.  I didn’t know how a principal was supposed to act, but “Koon” certainly wasn’t what I expected.  She was a friend, a mother figure…maybe a god figure.  She was the standard I measured all other principals by.

She was certainly the queen of her realm.  Everyone knew who was in charge but not in a heavy-handed way.  No one would accuse her of being a micromanager.  She wanted to lead, taking you along because you wanted to go, not dragging you along because you had to go.

Mrs. Hendrix allowed you to teach or coach in your own way.  She was comfortable allowing you to learn by making mistakes, backing you the first time and expecting you to gain wisdom and not repeat the mistake.  I made plenty of mistakes those first few years and she made sure I learned from them.  My wisdom?  I made sure I didn’t make the same mistake again.

Koon was a big woman or maybe I should say, she had a big presence.  She cast a huge shadow, bigger than life.  To me, she was an Amazon in every way. A deep raspy voice and a hardy laugh she liked to use.  Koon worked hard and she played hard, she expected the same for those who worked under her.  She had an “if it ain’t fun, I ain’t wantin’ to do it” attitude and her attitude translated to all around her.  I tried to adopt her attitude throughout my career, always trying to find fun in what I was doing.

I was young and impressionable trying to soak up as much knowledge and wisdom as I possibly could.  I was a twenty-three or four-year-old child who couldn’t bear the idea of disappointing his parents or Ms. Koon…although I’m sure I did.

The youthful me was “country come to town” when I entered her office for my interview.  It was a casual affair…a sit down on the couch, she in her rocking chair.  A let’s get to know you kind of interview.  I found out we grew up in the same county, she the “huge” metropolis of Lancaster, me in a wide place in the road near a cow patty, eighteen miles north.

I’ve often looked back on that moment.  I’ve often wondered what she saw in an immature hayseed from Indian Land, but she offered me a job teaching Physical Science and coaching and my life’s course had been set.

As the interview ended, I remember she leaned in as if to tell me a secret, instead asking a question, “Do you think you can work for a woman?”  An odd question in today’s era but this was the early Seventies and she was the first female principal in Greenville County.  I wanted the job badly and would have worked for an Orangutan.  No, I never said such and working for a woman was no problem.  Working for Koon was a joy of a lifetime.

If you are successful there are usually one or two people who impact you.  I was lucky…I had many impactful role models just at Mauldin, many who never realized their effect on my life.  Many who are now gone but not forgotten.

I was fortunate, I got to tell Marilyn how much she meant to me a year or so ago.  One person I didn’t get to tell was Jay Lunceford who passed too quickly to tell.  I find it particularly ironic to have learned of Marilyn’s passing on the anniversary of Jay’s.

Saddening but then the memories come flooding in.  I’m not sure how we survived to have memories.  God takes care of the young and stupid.  Oh, the stories I could tell but won’t…some of the people involved are still alive.

Koon will be missed but she’ll never really die either.  I have too much love.  Too many people owe her much…much love.  Too many people have the warm glow you associate with the warm morning sun and with Koon.

I have hopes she and Jay have met up somewhere in the cosmos, telling tales, laughing with each other, reminding us of what it was to be a Mauldin Maverick back in the day. “Do you remember when….”  You bet I do.

Koon, I’ll miss you, but I’ll still be laughing with you, telling tales of those days…the good old days.

***

Clarification:  Jay Lunceford was the head football coach and athletic director at Mauldin High School…and the father figure to Marilyn’s mother figure.  He too had a significant impact on my life.  Unfortunately, he passed way too soon in the late Seventies due to a brain tumor.  I believe he was thirty-two.

Don Miller writes on various subjects and his author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from an old yearbook.  Marilyn Koon Hendrix when she was still Marilyn Koon.  I pray she’s not looking down pointing a finger at me.

Hidden in the Shadows

I hadn’t entered a Roses…since…since…I worked in one during my college years.   I took a summer off from working textiles to take some summer school classes and needed a part-time job to keep my head above water.  I scored the position of stock room supervisor…a lofty title ruling over a staff of exactly one, me.

Today my wife had sent me to Roses on a quest, not for a holy grail but for a special type mop that Walmart didn’t seem to carry.  It became more than a quest.

The man called to me from the shadows created by the storefront at Roses.  I heard him but I couldn’t see him right off.  I could hear him but wasn’t close enough to understand him.  Cupping my ear with my hand I walked toward him.

He was an old man of color, skin a deep coffee with just a hint of cream.  He was clean-shaven, with skin smooth and clear.  His eyes were bright and twinkling although a bit sunken I thought.  He was dressed in old clothes consistent with an old man…something I might wear.  A faded army field coat over a blue and white plaid shirt worn over, threadbare, shiny khaki cords.  I saw slender ankles disappearing into scuffed but polished tie-up shoes.  The clothes were worn but clean.  The jacket and shirt swallowed him and later I noticed his belt caused his pants to bunch around his waist.  He held a cane across his lap.

His smile showed oversized false teeth, “Captain, can you spare some change?  I need a little food to keep the wolves away.”  His voice was deep and gravelly and somewhat melodic.

I am leery of panhandlers and have seen the video of one getting into her Mercedes after a long day of standing on the street.  As she placed her hand-lettered, cardboard sign in the trunk of her E class the interviewer asked a why question.  She ignored the microphone thrust into her face and roared off into the sunset without answering.

I looked at him with a sideways fisheye and reading my mind, he volunteered without me asking, “Naw sir, I ain’t drunk no al-ke-hall in over five years.  I’m just a little short between gubmint checks.  If you can’t hep me I understand.”

As I pulled out my wallet, I asked the old man, “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”

“I just turned sixty-nine last week.  I’s born November 13, 1950.”

I was stunned.  The old man was six months younger than me.  It was almost a kick to the danglies.

“I’m six months older than you.  April 9, 1950.”

He grinned, “Yeah?  Looks like I might have a bit mo mileage on my speedo.”  I nodded and thought, “I sure hope so.”

Looking in my wallet I found three twenties and two ones.  “Listen, I’ll be right back,” and went in to complete the search for my holy grail but failed to find it.  No mop with my wife’s specifications.  I called her admitting to my failure and explaining what I was about to do.

The old man was still there…funny how I thought of him as an old man still.  “Come on, let’s go across to Wendy’s and I’ll spring for a burger.  What do you say?”

He paused and pondered…finally, I tried to assure him, “Look, I’m harmless, come on.”

He stood and I slowly walked with him finally helping him into my old Ram 1500.

Once in the truck, he volunteered, “Ya know, I ain’t homeless.  I live over yonder in them gubmint houses.  I just come up short this month.”  He signed,  “Pay my bills or eat.  Tough choice sometimes.”

I glanced at him, “No need to explain.  I’ve had hard times too.”   Compared to him I knew I was lying.

“My name’s Don, incidentally.”

He extended his hand, gnarled and callused, “I’m Herbert…Herbert Perry.  Pleased to meet chu.”

Once inside he held back until I prodded, “Go on get what you want, Herbert.”

He stepped forward and in his gravelly voice slowly asked the woman behind the counter, “Kin I get me one of them double burgers with bacon?  How’s your coffee?  Fresh?”

I stepped forward and added, “Throw in an order of fries for him and a second double burger with bacon.  Also, large vanilla Frosty.”   One of the voices in my head laughed saying, “Eatin’ high on the hog ain’tcha?”

We sat in a corner, him eating his burger, me drinking my Frosty,

“My son comes by an looks in on me but he’s out of town.  He goes to where the work is with his company.  In Colorado now…been gone a month.  ‘Posed to be back this week.  He’ll slide me a bit of money until my check comes in.  Doctor’s bill cut into my social and the little bit of retirement money I get from Southern Weavin’.”

“What’s wrong if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I got the sugar and neuropathy.  Medicare don’t quite cover it.”

Food or medicine, what a choice.

“Did you grow up in Greenville?”

“Naw, down near Orangeburg…little place called St. Matthews.  My parents and grandparents were sharecroppers.  We moved to Greenville when the mills started hirin’ coloreds in the late Sixties.  I finished my senior year at Sterlin’ High.  You know of it?”

“Yeah, I drove a bus during summers takin’ kids to the pool at the old Sterlin’ gym.”

He laughed…”I reckon you looked like a pimple on a black face didn’t you?”

I laughed, “Yeah, I did.  But the people were nice and the kids…they were kids.”  I went on to explain my choice of vocations, a teacher and a coach for forty-five years.  I began teaching just after schools were totally desegregated.

“I worked at Southern Weavin’ until the jobs went south.  Nearly thirty years.  I did odd jobs after that.  I’ve always been good with my hands.  Dorothy, my wife, was a nurse until the cancer got her.  I kind of fell into a bottle for a while.  I crawled out about five years ago.”

“It happens.  You say you got a son, any others?”

The conversation shifted to families, children, and grandchildren.  I was happy an old black man and an old white man had so much in common.

“Captain, you not going to eat that burger?”

“No, that Frosty filled me up…I thought I’d let you take it home for supper.”  I didn’t fool him at all but we both ignored the lie.

“Why you doin’ this?”

I shook my head, “I don’t know.  Someone in my head told me it was the right thing to do and I hope I’ve made a friend.”

He nodded, “Could be.”

“Why don’t you let me take you home.  That way I’ll know where my new friend lives.”

I again watched his slow trek to the truck and offered him a hand.  He was quiet for the short trip to his home…a government-supported group of duplexes.  It was well maintained but had a gridded and boring sameness.

Kids, home from school, played along the streets.  Chasing each other, along with Frisbees and colorful balls.  Carefully I wove through them and at his direction pulled up to a corner unit and got out to help him down.  A little girl of my granddaughter’s age ran up to him.  Wearing a pink Minnie Mouse tee-shirt, she hugged him around his knees.

“Where you been Mr. Herb?”

“My friend and I just went for lunch Lizzie.  You go on and play now I’ll be out in a bit to watch chu.”

To me, he added, “Somethin’ about the noise kids create makes you forget your troubles.  I likes to sit out and watch ‘em.”

Leaning on his cane, “I ‘preciate the meal.  Maybe you come by sometimes and I’ll stand you one.”

I nodded and smiled, shook his hand and walked back to the truck.  I watched him slowly hobble to his door.  Turning, he waved as I cranked my old truck before disappearing into his home.

As I drove home, I had time to think.  I was reminded of an old phrase from some educational advertisement and adjusted it to “A mind is a terrible thing….”

I wondered how many people were having to make decisions on whether to eat or pay for a prescription.  How many people became homeless.  Bankrupt because they got sick.  I also gave a silent thanks for more blessings than I deserve.

In this country we continue to tout ourselves as the greatest in the world, we have people dying because they can’t afford health care…people who don’t have to die.  People who are dying because of corporate greed.  Being told to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps…or get another job.” How many are hiding in the shadows?

We have a family member who has “the sugar” and neuropathy.  He also lives in government-subsidized housing and his “social” doesn’t quite cover some months.  He is not an alky or drug addict.  He made some bad business choices and picked the month’s just before the Great Recession to try and start a company, sinking all of his resources into it.

The company went under and everything went with it.  His home, his car, his equipment, his country club membership, his life.  He went to work cleaning offices or selling everything from shoes to his soul, his wages garnished to pay off the loans made in good faith that had been sunk into a business that sank like a stone because of greedy mortgage lenders and Wall Street tycoons.

He has survived but could just as easily been hidden in the shadows.  Survived because of the family…but what of those who have none.  One “social” check short of the street.   Eat or buy meds, buy meds or pay the rent.

I tire of pontificators spreading the lies of the “welfare queens” living on the taxpayer’s teat.  Are there abuses, of course.  There are always people who play the system…some might say that billion-dollar corporations paying no taxes might be playing the system.  An excessive number of “welfare queens” are retired or disabled folk.  In many cases, they are people working multiple jobs to keep the wolves away.

Enough of the rant…  I hope I’ll follow through with my thoughts…Herb is a bit old to be adopted but maybe I can shine a bit of light into his shadows.

Don Miller writes on various subjects, some that bother him so.  His author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Aging Gracelessly Redux…. 

 

Oh,  I’m feelin’ it this mornin’, the morning after my weekly visit with Hawk.  Five miles on the Swamp Rabbit, solving all the world’s problems before enjoying an after-walk cup of coffee at the Tree House.  That’s just in case it’s been a problematic week and we need more time to solve those problems.  Lately, they’ve all been problematic, and no one listens to us anyway…well, they listen to us at the Tree House and that’s one of the reasons we keep going.  They think we are the bee’s knees.

Yeah, I’m feelin’ it as in feeling old, very old.

I do about twenty-five miles of walking during the week hoping to put distance between myself and the ominous figure caring the old-fashioned scythe.  Despite my best efforts, the distance between us is shortening.  As Hawk continues to tell me, “We ain’t gettin’ out of this alive.”  No, but I’m going out kicking and screaming…just like he is.  I want to be a burden on my child and grandchildren for a long time.

Hawkday Friday is the only day of the week I set an alarm and it throws my whole system out of whack.  Aging creates creatures of habit, I guess.  I am so out of sorts waiting for the Big Ben to go off.  “Did I remember to wind it?” Am I the only guy who must get up two hours ahead of time to make sure all systems “are a go?”  Friday mornings my “systems” always send out messages.  “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” 

I take my wife a cup of coffee at five-thirty because she is as crazy as I am and invariably, she mutters, “I don’t know why in the “firetruck” y’all can’t walk at a decent hour.”  I don’t know either except that it is easier to deal with my own disfunction than Hawk’s.  “And besides, you went to high school with him and learned similar dysfunctions.” He wants to walk at six to keep away from the sun and just because. I want to walk at seven-thirty to get into the sun and just because.  Opposites do attract.

So, I’m up at three-thirty and feeling like a dead man.  I had trouble falling asleep.  Late at one end of the day, early at the other makes for a grumbly old guy.  I could blame Hawk’s goofiness but to be honest, it’s just as much mine.  “How long before the alarm goes off?”

Who lays awake worrying about lying awake?  I do, that’s who.  When my bladder drives me out of bed in the middle of the night I worry about when the alarm is going off.  “Don’t look at your watch, you’ll only worry about going back to sleep.  Don’t look I said.  You’re a dumbass, you looked.  Jeez, I gotta get up in an hour.”  I might as well get up now, all I’m going to do is worry about having to get up.  Jeez, forty-five minutes, thirty minutes, etc. and finally I fall back to sleep…thirty seconds before the alarm goes off.

I feel as though I have been beaten.  My aging body has become an alien thing…as alien as Ripley’s Alien Queen and just as nasty at times.  An ever-changing sack of tiny aches and pains, a “thousand little paper cuts” kind of agony.  Nothing major, just my sagging bag of bones letting me know what I did yesterday, maybe the day before, maybe the hit I took in a football game fifty years ago.

Once I jumped out of bed in anticipation of the day to come, now I ease-out, one toe at a time, hoping I don’t pull something before my feet hit the floor.

Sagging bag of bones…. Did you know besides your hair and nails, your nose and ears are the only body parts that continue to grow as you age?  I don’t mean stretch as in sag…that’s kind of funny looking.  It would be funnier if it was someone else. Damn you gravity.

I mean body parts that actually continue to increase in size.  God must have a twisted sense of humor.  If I live long enough, I’m gonna look like a caricature of Ross Perot…according to the mirror, I already do.  A truly loving God would have given me hope in another area and a reason to get rid of my big ole four by four.

Every morning I wake up as the dark-headed, dark bearded young man of forty years ago.  I walk into the bathroom and yell in my head, “Don’t look in the mirror.  Don’t do it!  Boo, you looked.”  The vision in my head is a mirage, replaced by the image in the harsh light of the mirror.  An old guy with a bigger nose and ears than last night, with less hair and more wrinkles turning into crevasses.

Still, as Hawk and I discussed, we are better off than a lot of our peers.  We’re still mobile, hostile, agile…and delusional.  Youth is a state of mind and we are still in diapers…or are heading back to diapers?  We still have a childlike wonder about the world.  We still wonder what we are going to do when we grow up.

I’m a gluten for punishment and out of habit I walk again this morning.  I walk alone with my earbuds until I meet a pretty blond runner, her long ponytail bouncing, blue eyes twinkling.  For a moment I remember being thirty.  As I continue my walk, we pass each other three more times.

Finally, I ask, “How far are you going today?”

A big smile followed, “I’m doing eleven.”

I shook my head and returned her smile, “I remember those days, long runs on Saturdays.”

“How far are you walking?”

“Near five.”  She smiled, gave me a thumbs up and shouted “Great job” before continuing on her way.

My heart melted a bit and I thought, “You know your knees feel pretty good.  Maybe a little running next week. Maybe if I’m careful I can do a marathon by the time I grow up.”  I don’t know, I’m sure a nap will cure those thoughts.

For the clarification of those who don’t live in the area:

The Swamp Rabbit Trail is a fitness trail that runs from above Travelers Rest, SC through Greenville, SC.  It was named after and follows the route of a short spur railway once called The Swamp Rabbit.

The Tree House is the Tree House Cafe and Studio, which sits next to the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Travelers Rest.  Great coffee, sandwiches, great service, and great company.

Don Miller writes on various subjects, non-fictional and fictional, and can be found at  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM.

Lena Christenson, Don Miller’s feminine pen, has released a new book, Dark Tempest, a suspenseful romance with a hint of the erotic.  Lena can found at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07B6BDD19

The image, Old Man Loves Smoking Cigars, is by Greg Cartmell and may be purchased at https://gregcartmell.com/product/old-man-loves-smoking-cigars/

“As Time Goes By….”

 

My friend, the piano player, is not long for the world.  As I sat with him, giving his wife a needed break to run errands, I felt guilty.  A good portion of my being is praying he goes soon and I’m remorseful for the thought.  I am sorrowful because I doubt his end will come soon…I doubt it will be an easy passing.

His body, a body used to eighty plus years of hard work, refuses to give up despite a mind ready to move on to the great unknown.  Charlie has lung cancer and despite the oxygen he receives is struggling to breathe …and yet he continues to breathe, gasping to hold on, gasping to make me laugh.

In an earlier blog, I wrote he reminded me of Hoagie Carmichael, sitting in front of an upright piano, banging out a tune in Bogart’s and Bacall’s “To Have or Have Not.”  Smiling, cracking wise with an unfiltered coffin nail stuck to his lower lip, his mouth twisted into a sly grin. This morning I’m reminded of another piano player, Dooley Wilson as Sam in “Casablanca.”  I’m reminded of the love song he sang, “As Time Goes By”, but only because Charlie’s time is passing slowly as he awaits the kiss of death. “A kiss is but a kiss….”

A master carpenter when not banging away at the piano, Charlie told me he kept looking at the ceiling above his bed, seeing the imperfections and thinking how bad the builders were…laughing he admitted to being one of those builders.  “We really could have done a better job.”  I could see no imperfections.

“Why don’t we go sit on the porch.  We can roll you out there.  A little sunlight might do you good.”

He agreed, and I helped him into the wheelchair before realizing the portable oxygen bottle was in his wife’s car.  Sometimes it is not the blind leading the blind, it’s the blind leading the stupid.

We talked about death and what it means.  My thoughts on death have always been personal and I’ve kept them private.  Speaking to someone so close to death about death is uncomfortable and disconcerting.  Still…I opened my own soul.  I’ve always believed “energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only changed” which is the basis for my spiritual beliefs, but you shouldn’t say that to someone whose energy is dwindling…should you?

He made me laugh when he asked if I feared death.  I answered, “No, just dying hard.”

Smiling and nodding his head, he responded, “Yeah, me too”, followed by a laugh that turned into a coughing spell.

Charlie tired out quickly and I tried to let him sleep.  He was like a young child, fighting sleep tooth and nail.  He would be silent, eyes closed, and then, as if rallying, struggled to begin a new conversation.

In between naps and gasps, he spoke of times gone by, people he knew, many now gone.  Hopes of glorious reunion.  I wonder…I wonder if his faith is stronger than mine.

I wrote the following death scene for a yet unpublished book entitled Paradise.  It was written with an attitude of hope.  I hope Charlie walks into the light.  I hope we all walk into the light “As (our) Time Goes By.”

The old man could hear voices in his sleep.  They seemed familiar.  He opened his eyes to a bright light….  There was no glare and he didn’t have to squint.  It was soft and warm, welcoming.  Figures were silhouetted against it.  Three he could discern but there seemed to be others just beyond his sight.

“Allen Kell…wake up!  It’s time.”  The old man smiled because he recognized Lucretia’s voice.

“Lucretia…time for what?”

“It’s your time…your time to move to the light.  There are people here who want to see you.  I want to see you.  It’s been a long time and I’ve missed you terribly.”

“Who’s there with you Lucretia?  I can’t quite make them out.”

“Cassandra and Josey…but there are others.  Don’t be scared.  It is glorious, and we can all be together.”

“Together,” The old man found himself on his feet, in a body he didn’t quite remember.  He wore the old Garibaldi shirt from the war, an old slouch hat was in his left hand.  With his right he reached for Lucretia’s hand…except it was all their hands it seemed.  Lucretia’s along with Cassandra’s and Josey’s.  There were more people from his past.  Sean, with his leprechaun grin, waving at him.  Alexandre’ decked out in his fresh mourning suit and smiling broadly.  Shailene in a mauve gown whose bodice defied gravity.  James, Momma and Papa Edwards…and more.

“Come, Allen Kell.  We are here to help you reach the light.  Your time on earth is done.  You should not be afraid.”

“Afraid?  No Lucretia, I’m not scared.  I’ve missed you.  I love you, just lead and I will follow.”

“Come, Paradise beckons.” and he was gone.

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Don Miller writing under the nom de plume of Lena Christenson can be found at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07B6BDD19

 

 

GREEN RIVER…UM, UM, GOOD…

Good food, good times and good friends you didn’t know you knew.

I sat with my beloved at a raised bar done in corrugated metal and salvaged wood.  We sat on tall, padded, metal bar stools and sipped Narragansett.  It had been a while since we had partaken of the ambrosia of the gods… pulled pork BBQ, slaw and fried okra.  We were sipping beer and watching the big screen as we waited.  Narragansett is a Yankee beer.  Despite its Northern birthplace, I like it as much as the beers from more Southern climes.  I like good beer where ever it is brewed…I know, sometimes I wouldn’t know a good beer if it bit me on the ass, but “Gansett” goes well with the BBQ…and it’s cheap enough to have two…or three.

I’m reminded a bit of Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.”  Well, here at Green River, they may have forgotten our names, but they do recognize us…and it’s been a while.  Melanie and Tammie noticed us immediately and despite being covered up with other diners took time to check in and reconnect.  There was a third little girl whose name I’ve forgotten.  I feel terrible.  That’s Cheers-like, isn’t it?  She checked in too.

In addition to my love affair with great BBQ, I have had a love affair with hole-in-the-wall establishments dating to when I first ventured into a bar named The Cellar in the very late Sixties.  Dim, smoky places…

” Meeting… in smoky places,

Hiding… in shadowy corners,

Dancing… where no one knows our faces,

sharing love stolen in the night,

in smoky places.”

 

Thank you, Corsairs, all though I’m not talking about THAT kind of smoky place.  My first real date with the love of my life was in a dim, bluesy, smoke-filled, hole in the wall and no we weren’t hiding from anyone at The Casablanca.  Just listening to the Blues sung by Ronnie Godfrey, a friend of my love who would eventually sing at our wedding.  Later, at different times, we would celebrate a significant anniversary, a New Year’s celebration and Mardi Gras at the Cypress Cellar, a hole-in-the-wall that became less and less hole-in-the-wall like until it finally changed into a bright Mexican restaurant with a different name.  I do miss the Cajun cuisine…and its “hole-in-the-wallness” although the Mexican restaurant is very good…just too bright to be a hole-in-the-wall.

We first wandered into Green River BBQ thirty years ago.  It was an accident, like a lot of the good discoveries in our lives…one might say discovering each other was an accident that worked out well too.   Late in the day on a cool and foggy, fall evening, it was our first trip to the small town of Saluda in North Carolina.  Deciding we wanted to eat, there were three restaurants to choose from.  We picked the correct one…for us.  We watched a football game on a not so big screen TV and met Melanie, the owner, and her husband.  The husband hasn’t been in the picture for a while and I admit that I really haven’t missed him.  I doubt Melanie has either.  We sat in the small, rustic dining area reading the quaint and rusting metal signs of pigs adorning walls finished from old salvaged boards.  A screened in porch led us to the dining area and the sound of the slamming screen door reminded me a bit of home.

Waiters and waitresses have changed over the years as has Green River.  Melanie has expanded the dining room, now done in corrugated metal along with the unfinished boards.  True big screen TVs are available to watch sporting events if you so desire.  Joining the rusting signs, garden rake heads are attached to the walls and utilized to hold wine glasses.  Yep, a wine list has joined its beer list.  The screened porch is now enclosed to increase year-round seating, but the screen door still has that pleasant bang and a bit of the parking lot has been confiscated for outdoor seating.  Most importantly, while the people and objects have changed, the attitude hasn’t.  It still feels like a welcoming hole-in-the-wall…and a bit like home.

This past Sunday, we met new friends.  Steve from Wilmington, spending a few weeks helping a friend clean up his home’s lot and searching for information on how to get rid of groundhogs without shooting them.  Deshi, from the small town of “Somewhere,” India, teaches at the local community college and is quite the football fan.  We nodded at an old friend, John, the chubby, red-faced, dark headed guy that always comes in alone and sits quietly working the Sunday crossword.  There were other regulars I recognized, they greeted us even if they didn’t know our names.  My kind of place.

One might surmise food is not the primary reason I go to Green River.  That would be untrue.  I opened with good friends, good times and good food.  My only complaint about the food is…I don’t have any complaints about their food.  They have great entrees, some that don’t even involve BBQ, but I do remind you, you probably shouldn’t order fish in a restaurant advertising pulled pork, slow cooked ribs, and barbeque chicken.  When asked to name your side dish, do try the fried okra with a little Ranch dressing on the side.

Yes, good friends, good times and good food.  There are other restaurants in Saluda and they too are good, friendly and have their own “hole-in-the-wall” ambiance…they just don’t serve BBQ.

For more of Don Miller’s “a bubble off plumb” outlook on life please visit his author’s page at http://amazon.com/author/cigarman501

“PLAY BALL, CHUCK!”

Baseball coaches and umpires seem, at best, to have contentious relationships although to “toot” my own horn, I really attempted to cultivate umpires rather than alienate them and most of the time I believe I was successful.  Yes, I’m happy to say Tommy and I buried the hatchet before he died and we didn’t bury it in each other.

Chuck Eaton has passed away.  Another of my adulthood friends has gone to his reward.  Chuck and I began our careers in baseball about the same time, he as an umpire and I as a coach.  I can’t count the number of times he called games involving one of my teams but it would have had to be in the dozens.  I can remember the first one and the last one and over forty years, I’m just not sure who cultivated whom.  My problem with Chuck was he reminded me too much of my dad, somewhat in looks but more in his quiet and respectful demeanor.  I guess maybe he cultivated me.

I remember when I first ran afoul of Chuck.  It was one of my first games as a JV coach at Mauldin, a high school outside of Greenville, South Carolina.  Chuck was behind the plate, a young umpire but not a young man.  At the time, I did not realize he had retired from twenty years of military service.  I believed the opposing catcher had interfered with my batter’s attempt to bunt the ball.  Chuck quietly said, “No coach, the pitch was too high to be bunted anyway.”  Ordinarily, such a comment would not have been a good start to a relationship between a coach and umpire but somehow, we were able to get by it.

I learned of his military service on a cool moist night at Riverside High School.  We were both older and wiser but I’m sure my interaction with him was somewhat subdued because of the fact we were well ahead.  He was behind the plate, and even though it was late in the game, Chuck had still not settled on a consistent strike zone and my fans were unmerciful in their criticism and accused him of changing his strike zone from pitch to pitch.  Walking to the batting circle to make a lineup change, I decided to engage him in friendly banter.

“Chuck, my fans are pretty vocal about your strike zone.  I’d like to apologize for them but to be honest, I agree with them.”

In his quiet voice, he explained, “Coach, I know they think they are getting to me but I flew single engine props for the Forward Air Control during Vietnam.  This is nothing compared to that.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Forward Air Control, they flew unarmed, slow moving propeller driven aircraft called “targets”.  One of their functions was to attract ground fire so the fast moving, armed guys could swoop in and get all the glory.

Chuck was that kind of guy, not looking for the glory.  He enjoyed being a part of the game of baseball and the game called life.  During our many phone calls rescheduling games, he never failed to ask about my family and was quick to offer tidbits about his own, including the daughter I taught at Mauldin.  He was, as we all should be, quite proud of his family.  When we met for the last time on a field of play some three years ago, his first question was, “How is the Missus?”

It was always comfortable to know Chuck was somewhere around and I’ll miss him.  As usual, I wish I had kept in close contact.  I do feel comfort in his strong faith and I’m sure that if heaven exists, he’s already trying to organize a game.  I’m sure his strike zone will be a bit more consistent unless he just misses those coaches and fans yelling at him.  “Play Ball, Chuck!”

A PLAYER…ALL GROWN UP

For a guy who coached high school baseball for over thirty years, I don’t go to many high school baseball games. Just four this season. I feel a little guilty about not going but have found if I haven’t invested in the kids playing, I’m just as happy to catch a few innings of a collegiate or a pro game on the tube while relaxing on my recliner. Maybe I’m just being lazy.

Today was different. Instead of being lazy, I sat on the first base fence line watching a former player, Tim Perry, coach his high school team in our state high school playoffs. I might have been the only spectator who was more focused on the third base coaching box than the actual field of play.

The site of the game was a field where, in a past lifetime, I had wandered from the dugout to the third base coaching box and back again just like my former player was doing. I felt a certain kinship with him and understood the emotions he was possibly feeling. I watched him cheering, clapping, offering up nuggets of baseball knowledge and teaching the game. Picking his players up after an error or a strike out…no visible berating although I don’t know for sure what went on inside of the dugout…no berating I’m sure.

I was happy to be a spectator. The gut wrenching, acid churning and Tums gobbling days’ of “life or death” competition rest squarely on his much younger, broader shoulders and are, thankfully, in my rear-view mirror. I’d rather just cheer for him.

There is a comradery among coaches, even rival coaches, and these two knew each other well, having competed against each other since their little league playing days. After losing the second game, the district final, I wondered if they were still friends? Knowing Tim’s personality, I would guess yes.

When I first met Tim, he was a freckled faced ninth grader. He had one of those angelic faces that lit up the world when he smiled. Angelic face but full of “snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.” Short and just a few pounds past “stocky,” he resembled a “pleasingly plump” Alfalfa of Our Gang fame or maybe Howdy Doody of Buffalo Bob renown. If you look at him just right today, you can still see it.

Tim was trying out for our junior varsity team and had all the correct mechanics and moves, learned from hours of baseball camps and honed on hundreds of diamonds around the South, if not the nation. He looked good doing whatever he was doing. The problem was he looked good swinging through a lot of pitches, having a ball roll between his legs or having to line him up with a fence post to see if he was actually moving when he ran. I cut him. Doing so might, I say might, have been a mistake.

When a young kid gets cut he has a couple of options. He can allow it to ruin his athletic career, just quit and feel sorry for himself, or he can work harder and try again. I imagine you might guess which Tim did. It didn’t hurt he had a growing spurt over that next year, as in about six inches, a foot? No not that much but he was six foot plus by the time graduated. He turned into a good player, the ace of my pitching staff and good enough to play college ball. Yeah, maybe I made a mistake. I cherish the picture of us made when he signed his letter of intent to play for my old alma mater.

More importantly, and more to the point, he’s turned into a good man with a beautiful family. I watched a three-year-old boy run around and play as the game went on. He is Tim made over, a freckled faced little imp. The little boy’s mother and sister are pretty, brunette images of each other, thank goodness. I’m not sure how much Tim’s wife actually got to watch the game while keeping up with two fireballs. I know I never saw her sit down. Tim’s parents were there too, aging but still pulling for their son, always his biggest cheerleaders…and greatest teachers. How much support does someone deserve…a lot in Tim’s case.

I would guess it was heaven ordained Tim would become a baseball coach. He was already a coach when he played for me. Tim loved the game too much not to pursue that vocation along with a career in teaching despite a short tenure in the “real world,” the non-teaching world.

I’ve found there are two kinds of men who coach baseball…at least at the high school level. Those who coach the game for the game, and those who coach the kids. Over the years, I’ve found I don’t have much use for the men who coach the game just for the sake of winning championships…and I know, we’re all in it to win or you don’t stay in it very long. Observing Tim, I saw a coach who was coaching baseball but more importantly he was coaching kids and having fun doing it…and they were having fun too.

Tim, I’m glad you were mine for a brief period and happy you have turned into the man you’ve turned into. I hope you know how lucky you are to be that man. Maybe next year Coach…and I’m really sorry I made that mistake.

Don Miller writes “memories.” If you enjoyed this short essay, more may be purchased or downloaded at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP