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

Goodbye HoJo, I Thought You Had Already Died

“Little roadside restaurant we artfully complain, Rudy tells the waitress that his chicken died in vain” – Opening Lyrics of Jimmy Buffett’s Coast of Carolina

Earlier in the week I made note of the passing of the last, orange roofed, Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Once it boasted hundreds of restaurants along with motels. First the motels were sold off to Marriott, who later sold them themselves. The restaurants were closed until there was only one left standing in St. George, New York. I was surprised to learn that it still existed. I also noted that as a child I referred to it as Howard and Johnson’s. Stupid kid thoughts.

Yes, “Another baby-boomer icon has bitten the dust. The last remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant, the orange-roofed baby-boomer favorite known for fried clams and twenty-eight flavors of ice cream including both peanut and pecan brittle, shut its doors, bringing down the curtain on a chain that once boasted 1,000 locations across the nation, the Times Union reported. The outlet, in Lake George, New York, closed this spring after almost 70 years.”

I am a baby-boomer, but I am not a gourmet of wine or food…I don’t speak French either. I do know what I like, and Howard Johnson’s was never what I liked…ice cream not included. I can’t remember any ice cream I didn’t like.

I ‘m certainly am not making a definitive epicurean review but when I hear the lyric, “Rudy tells the waitress that his chicken died in vain,” several restaurants come to mind, HoJo being one of them along with the cafeteria style S & S my father and brother and I frequented when we visited my mother in the State Hospital in Columbia.

My mother was part of a study of ALS, known as Lou Gerig’s Disease, at the state mental hospital, less than affectionally known as the crazy house. Our Sunday visit lunch choice was the S & S. I do not have fond memories of the S & S, but it is more about the death of my mother than their food offerings. Well, there was their green Jell-O salad.

Cafeteria style right down to the plastic plates and glasses. Good, cheap food…well cheap at least. With their different food choices and ambiance, I shouldn’t equate HoJo’s and S & S to each other, except their “facture de tarif” should have been accompanied by a gastric SOS. Facture de tarif is bill of fare, but I had to look it up.

Howard Johnson’s died due to the fast-food industry and the lifestyles we are forced to live. Most of us don’t have the means or the time to sit down for even a cafeteria style meal. There are other restaurants that died too, thanks to the fast-food hamburgers and fried chicken…along with some of their fans as ground beef patties fried in fat clogged their arteries.

The first hamburger chain in the States was White Castle opened in 1921. It was opened by Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson who started with the first White Castle restaurant in Wichita in 1916. They had a small menu which had cheap, square shaped hamburgers and they sold them in large numbers. The first franchises appeared in 1921 (A&W Root Beer franchised their syrup) and the first restaurant franchise appeared in the 1930s by Howard Johnson.

Johnson didn’t know he was contributing to the eventual demise of his restaurant and honestly it didn’t begin to snowball until the Fifties when the American love for cars became associated with suburbs, drive-ins and in my part of the world, the Hardee’s fifteen cent hamburger that made its appearance during the Fifties and Colonel Sanders’ KFC sold its first franchise in1952.

As bad as I thought Howard Johnson’s food was, it didn’t die because of its chicken dying in vain. It was American lifestyle changes. Well, the chicken might have contributed.

I do feel remorse that another symbol of my youth is gone even though the orange roof had been previously forgotten by me. I also regret all fast food doesn’t taste like Burger King hamburgers smell. But then Burger King hamburgers don’t taste like they smell.

May all your fast-food hamburger patties be larger than the pickle slice topping it and may you not die of a heart attack from eating them.

A little live Buffett for your listening enjoyment. No, not Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Don’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3Gpuu1x2MckONqCD6fIVcrtZbn6FG4595ZSgRqE2sDiwZAzECxvPAF7lI

Culture of the Gun

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”                 – attributed to Albert Einstein

As a retired teacher I have suffered over the deaths at Uvalde…and Columbine…and Sandy Hook…and…so many more. Late in my career I participated in “active shooter” drills and helped to produce strategies to counter an attack. We locked our doors even though the only thing between us and an active shooter was a five-eighth piece of sheet rock.

Since the brutal deaths of nineteen students and two teachers in a Texas school, barely a week after the shooting of six, one killed, in a California church, and ten killed in a New York grocery store many have opinions on what needs to be done to ensure the safety of our children and ourselves.

Most of the reactions follow a familiar path, “thoughts and prayers”, media outcries for change, pro-gun rights folks debate anti-gun rights folks including deflection, time passes with nothing happening except more guns are bought until the furor dies and we are again shocked with the next mass shooting. The debate begins again and honestly…we don’t seem to be as shocked as we once were.

I’ve seen suggestions from arming teachers, my least favorite out of myriads of least favorites, to we must “harden the targets.” That sounds like something from a war zone or a “sh!th@le” country. All ignore the underlying issue. A culture that embraces violence over diplomacy and access to weapons to execute that violence.

Another suggests “evil exists, and laws will not change that.” The next time a highway patrolman pulls me for speeding I think I’ll try that one out. No, I’m not equating speeding to murder, but the comment has me wondering why we have laws at all. Laws are for honest people?

Let me be fair. It is not just about school, church, or supermarket shootings. It is the drive by in LA, or gang violence in Chicago or Baltimore, or the drunken good ole boy who decides to William Tell a PBR can off his friend’s head and misses a bit low with his hunting rifle.

It’s about four students wounded while walking to their prom. It is about gunfire due to road rage and looking cross eyed at the wrong person. It’s about good old boys strapping AR-15s to their back when they get a coffee at the local coffee shop. It is about a lack of empathy and ignoring the sanctity of life in favor of an amendment.

In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of youth death’s surpassing automobile accidents. Most were suicides. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 54% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (24,292), while 43% were murders (19,384). The numbers came from the CDC and were backed by other sources. According to CNN, personal safety tops the list of reasons why American gun owners say they own a firearm, yet 63% of US gun-related deaths are self-inflicted.

It is a fact that it took a finger to pull the trigger, the gun didn’t do it on its own, and these Pew and CDC statistics do not reflect accidental gun deaths or where guns were a contributing factor but not the cause of death. It is also true that we live in a gun rich environment. Five percent of the world’s population owns 44-46% of the world’s civilian firearms depending on the study you might be reading. According to a recent CNN study, we own more guns than we have people, one hundred-twenty guns per one hundred people.

According to a Scientific American study in 2015, assaults with a firearm were 6.8 times more common in states that had the most guns, compared to the least. More than a dozen studies have revealed that if you had a gun at home, you were twice as likely to be killed as someone who didn’t.

Research from the Harvard School of Public Health tells us that states with higher gun ownership levels have higher rates of homicide. Data even tells us that where gun shops or gun dealers open for business, killings go up. There are always exceptions to the rule, but some politicians would have you ignore the overall data and quote the exceptions rather than the rule.

In an article by Fortune Magazine published by Yahoo, Gun rights groups spent $15.8 million on lobbying last year, compared to just $2.9 million in lobbying from gun control groups. Beyond lobbying, gun groups have contributed $50.5 million to federal candidates and party committees between 1989 and 2022, with the vast majority going to Republicans. They spent especially heavily in the 2020 election, with $16.6 million in outside spending.

Oh, but the Second Amendment…. I’m not going to debate it except to say that one side always ignores two words, “well regulated.”

Will there be a change after Buffalo and Uvalde? If history repeats, why would I expect there would be change. I don’t believe I am an overly cynical person but why would I expect change? Guns are as much a part of our culture as mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Other than exchanging duck and cover drills for active shooter drills little has changed.

Our history is rife with violence, mostly involving a gun. Our country was born from violence and expanded using violence. Do we have a greater propensity for violence than other countries? I don’t know but other countries have done a better job of curbing theirs.

We have violent games, violent movies glorifying the gun and the heroic figure welding it. I’m just as guilty. Several of my novels include violence…gun violence but the good guy with the gun always saved the day…unlike real life. 

When I read my comic books, Zane Grey, or Louis Lamoure, I knew it was fiction. James Arness or John Wayne wasn’t really gunning them down in the streets. After I became a history student, I found out their fiction was…based on fiction. There were few gunfights in the streets and the Gunfight at the OK Corral lasted about thirty seconds. My novels are no different.

Other cultures have violent games, movies, and literature, but they don’t have real-life violence like we do here. Maybe we should work to keep guns out of the hands of the violent. Maybe we should look at the underlying issues that lead to violence and attempt to correct them.

It is mental illness. I believe someone who goes out and kills nineteen children is mentally ill…but that doesn’t give him a free pass. Other countries with much lower murder rates have mental illnesses too. Could it have something to do with our health system? Maybe we should work to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

It is parenting. Probably but why? Single parent homes? Parents having to work multiple jobs leaving their children to their own devices. Cycles of poverty? We don’t seem to care much once a child is born.

Criminals will always find a way…yes probably. Why are we not cutting off access at the source? Gunmakers and smugglers? Everything is done after the murder instead of trying to prevent it. Could it be gunmakers and politicians are making too much money off the sale of legal and illegal firearms?

Maryland was one of the outliers in the Pew study. Strict gun laws but a higher number of gun deaths. Sixty-five percent of the guns used in violence in Maryland that could be traced came from other states with laxer gun laws. I don’t know the numbers but the same can be said about Chicago, I’m sure. Just something to ponder.

Cain killed Abel with a rock. Yep, if the Bible is to be believed. I would rather confront a killer walking around with a bag of rocks than a bag of thirty round magazines and a rifle or pistol to put them in.

Along the same lines, “We’ve taken God out of … fill in the blank.” There are many countries who aren’t considered “Christian Countries” who have much lower gun homicide rates. Research Shinto Japan and while you are at it research their gun laws. Japan has a very violent history at times. Somehow, they decided to overcome it as did other less Christian countries.

It does seem we have lost our appreciation for the sanctity of life…all life. Our hatred for others leads us to violence. Disagreement has become life threatening. Some Christians will say it is because we have become Godless, I will say that some Christians have driven me from organized religion because they are Jesus-less. If you can’t appreciate the Earth and the people who live on it I want no part of you.

I don’t expect any of this will change anyone’s mind about guns…or violence…or mental illness and I don’t believe any effective change will occur. Gun violence is too engrained in our culture, and we pass it on to our children. I fear it is who we are.

***

For clarification, Albert Einstein had many thoughtful quotes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” was not one of them. The quote, or a similar quote, first appeared in an Al-Anon article in 1981. There is no evidence Einstein ever said it.

Research cited


https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-is-clear-gun-control-saves-lives/

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/26/world/us-gun-culture-world-comparison-intl-cmd/index.html?fbclid=IwAR2vEhlMbsPbVhwBEXTyXtC6iUkx2VAkGf37uCdLzyMABlHEDSPSANOacV0

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/lobbying-gun-rights-groups-hit-152634408.html

The Wishbook

…the Sears catalog, “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” The 1943 Sears News Graphic

Someone shared a memory and I fell into a rabbit hole. Later, I was looking at Amazon offerings on Cyber-Monday when the memory arrived-The Sears Wishbook.

When I poured over the offerings from the Sears Catalog, I never thought of it as a historical source. I was a child and perused it as most children did, wishing.  Wishing I had the gazillion piece “Fort Apache” set, the Lionel train set, a JC Higgins’ 100 Bicycle, the shotgun being hawked by Ted Williams, just to name a few. Somewhere along my pathway, I did own a Lionel train set, a hand-me-down from an older cousin, and a JC Higgins double barrel. Wish I knew what happened to them.

The arrival of the Sears Christmas “Wishbook” was a highly anticipated event. Not just by children. I remember my mother’s excitement and I had to wait in line for the opportunity to leaf through its five hundred or so pages.

The 1961 Wishbook cover I probably “wished” over.

The first Wishbook dropped from the presses in 1933 and according to History.com “Items featured in the first catalogue included the popular Miss Pigtails doll, Lionel electric train sets, a Mickey Mouse watch, boxes of chocolate and even live singing canaries.” It had not changed much in the Fifties and Sixties, but I don’t remember singing canaries.

Miss Pigtails…I think.

The catalogue would arrive in our mailboxes in late August or early September and soon became as much a holiday tradition as “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” with warm, colorful Christmas scenes decorating the cover and the pages within. Thank you, RFD1 for the hours I flipped through the pages, defining, and refining my Christmas choices.

The Sears Catalog was a boom for those of us who lived in rural and isolated areas. It was a boom for R. W. Sears, a railroad agent who bought a shipment of watches to sell as a side business. He was later joined by Alvah C. Roebuck, a watchmaker, and in 1893 Sears and Roebuck Mail Order Company was born. The business quickly expanded to selling more than watches and the first Sears Mail Order Catalogue was mailed out in the late 1890s.

The Sears and Roebuck mail order business quickly took off. The Sears catalogue contained hundreds of pages of merchandise by the late 1890s. Rural Americans, two-thirds of the population at that time, could now purchase hundreds of different items—shoes, women’s garments, including unmentionables, horse drawn wagons, and for a time horseless carriages, fishing tackle, furniture, china plate sets, musical instruments, firearms, and bicycles—all by mail.

See the source image
The Sears Motor Buggy had a top speed of twenty-five mph. It was sold from 1908-1912 but became a casualty of Henry Ford’s Model T

You could order anything from a Sears Catalog. Anything would include a kit home called the Sears cottage. Between 1908 and 1940, seventy-five thousand kit homes were sold.  They were well designed, well made, and economical. Many of those homes still exist today.

How much did a Sears kit house cost? Comprising more than 10,000 pieces and materials, the kits retailed for between $600 and $6,000 and were available in over two-hundred styles. That would be about $10,000 to $100,000 in today’s money. Need financing, Sears did that too.

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One of the more expensive homes.

Need furniture, appliances, and tools to finish the project? Sears had it all. Window dressings, stoves to cook on, dining rooms to eat in, Sears was your “one stop” for all your shopping needs and with “quality” too.

With the population moving to the cities, Sears built its first brick and mortar store in 1925. Located by design in working-class areas, Sears was one of the first department stores to cater to working men. Durability over fashion, quality tools, and hardware were mainstays.

Not that women were ignored. “Fashionable” clothing, “exotic” perfumes, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, and sewing machines for those who wanted to sew their own and look fashionable doing it. Key up a mental vision of June Cleaver cleaning house in a dress featuring Peter Pan collars, bouffant petticoats, and high heels.

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The first Sears store. Chicago 1925

Sears was responsible for industry firsts. Kenmore sewing machines appeared in 1913 and expanded over the years to include vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and air conditioners, followed by other quality appliances. Sears sold its first Craftsman tools in 1927 expanding to include power tools, lawn mowers, and garden tractors. At the time these were quality tools that carried lifetime guarantees.

All-State Insurance was a Sears creation as was the Discovery Card. Within a decade over twenty million Americans had a Discovery Card.

I’ve drifted away from the Sears Catalogue and into a history lesson.

The Sears Catalogue and The Wishbook don’t exist any longer with its glossy pages of colorful pictures. In the early Nineties it became a casualty of the internet age and big box stores. As the country roads of my youth became a casualty of the interstate systems and urban sprawl, The Wishbook ceased to exist anywhere but online and in my mind.

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1899 Sears Catalogue Cover

Sears, itself, became a casualty of its own making. Others emulated it and did it better. Big box stores like Walmart and K Mart sold more for less…and with less quality. Sears followed suit but couldn’t keep up, closing many stores and laying off its workers.

Sears sold itself to K Mart, Kenmore to Amazon, and Craftsman to Stanley Black and Decker. Finally, it filed for bankruptcy in late 2018. One more icon of the past gone…at least, in its original form.2

According to author Christine Brae, “Time waits for no one” but the little boy in me still remembers the glorious day when the Sears Wishbook arrived. I can close my eyes and see the Christmas scenes with gayly clad boys and girls. I can see the toys I could only dream about and remember some that found their way under the Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas morning.

The Wishbook harkens to those days in my life when my biggest worry was if “I had been a good little boy.” Christmas carols, Mother’s Ambrosia, Nannie’s quilted stockings filled with fruit, nuts, and butter mints. My father’s bloody knuckles from grating coconut for coconut cake. Christmas was about family gatherings on Christmas Eve.

Early on Christmas morning, whispering to my little brother as we waited in anxious anticipation for our parents to wake up and take us to see what was under the tree. Hoping there was no bag of coal or bundle of switches. Peeking around the corner attempting to see what might be there before scurrying back to bed when we heard our parents’ bedroom door open.

It is about The Wishbook and the warm memories it triggered.

***

 RFD1
Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was a program of the United States Postal Service that began in the late 19th century to deliver mail directly to rural destinations. Until the late 19th century, residents of rural areas had to travel to a post office to pick up their mail or to pay for delivery by a private carrier. RFD post service allowed the distribution of national newspapers and magazines and was responsible for millions of dollars of sales in merchandise to customers through mail-order deliveries in rural areas.

2 Sears is in its final days. There are approximately twenty-three Sears stores still open in the United States, as of November 11, 2021. Of these, six are set to permanently close soon. There is still a Sears presence online that sells familiar Sears products like Kenmore appliances or Craftsman tools.

My author’s page is found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3IdxEjFJbXm_hKGSr97HEFWc02TNzkZReQYi33Ls4gox_V5KOabXN-Yvg

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

“After all, a woman didn’t leave much behind in the world to show she’d been there. Even the children she bore and raised got their father’s name. But her quilts, now that was something she could pass on.” ― Sandra Dallas

First, the saying for those too young to have heard it “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine”–I can’t think of the last time I heard the old saying used. I suspect my grandmother last used it in my presence. The ‘stitch in time’ means the prompt sewing up of a small hole or tear in a piece of material may save the need for more stitching later when the hole has become larger.

So, what does it really mean? I tend to use ‘take care of the trivial things and the big ones won’t ever come up.’ They mean the same thing but ‘a stitch in time’ is more colorful and honestly, has nothing to do with this story unless your “stitch in time” is made with a Singer Sewing Machine.

We’re twenty-one days from Christmas day as I write this and I’m both flooded with Christmas memories and filled with the trepidations associated with depression and not having purchased or created the first Christmas present. The likelihood of me ‘getting on the stick’ is low so instead of “saving nine” by rushing out and Christmas shopping I’ll sit here basking in memories from Christmas’ past.

My grandmother was a creator of Christmas gifts, most sewn on an old Singer Trendle Sewing Machine. She came from a time when Christmas gifts included fruit and nuts, corn shuck or rag dolls, peppermint candy, hand stitched quilts and such. A time when gifts were made or were items, we take for granted now.

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A corn shuck (husk) doll for sale on Ebay. My Grandmother is rolling in her grave.

She told me once how much she enjoyed the tangerines her father, a mercantilist, brought home for Christmas gifts. I didn’t think too much about that until I realized how much harder it was to find tangerines in the rural 1910s as opposed to the rural 1960s.

I have the quilts she sewed for me. Patchwork quilts made from cloth saved from over the years. I’m sure many pieces had special meanings, others just filler. Some of the piece’s hand sewn, others sewn with that old Singer.

She also gave stockings full of gifts that meant something to her. Gifts like she received as a young girl. Apples and oranges, a handful of nuts, a box of butter crème mints or peppermint. Pencils and small flip notebooks. When in college, a book of stamps or postcards to make sure I wrote her.

One year she gave all her grandbabies quilted stockings she made. Somehow, I ended up with one so ugly it was beautiful. Ugly because of the orange and green backing, not my favorite colors, beautiful because she made it.

Both my grandmother and mother had Singer Sewing Machines, my mother a more modern electric model. I remember, as a child, traveling to the Belk Brothers or Woolworth with my mother and grandmother as they perused the stacks of dress patterns until they found something “new” they liked. From there they would go to the fabric section to pick out the cloth they wanted, the salesperson using the length of her stretched out arm to her nose method of measuring.

McCall’s dress pattern from Pinterest

Cutting out the cloth using the patterns, pinning it all together before carefully stitching it up. My mother’s exclamations when something didn’t sew quite right causing her to tear out her seams and start over. Finally starching and ironing out the finished product before wearing it to church on Sunday.

I would say sewing became passe after my mother’s generation. Affordable clothing became too prevalent and time too precious. My wife has a Singer that was her grandmother’s. My bride has assured me she knows how to use it but never used it in my presence. She would be quick to tell me that “nowhere in our marriage vows did I agree to obey or sew. Loving and honoring were momentous enough.”

See the source image
Vintage Singer Sewing Machinehttps://www.collectorsweekly.com/stories/283353-vintage-singer-sewing-machine

I have a former student, now friend…a fellow traveler down life’s pathway. She still sews but she is also a throwback to a different time. I guess a throwback to when sewing was a way to while away the hours productively and the quilting group a social meeting opportunity…if you read gossip into that it is your fault. My friend is a producer, a creator…may be a gossiper too.

Twenty-one days…I have time to do a bit of producing although the creative gene may have skipped a generation. I can make a birdhouse if I can find a hollowed-out log or weave a grapevine wreath. I have a gracious plenty of raw material and they tend to make themselves. 

I just won’t be using a Singer Sewing Machine. I have a mental vision of sewing myself into a cocoon.

***

Don Miller’s newest book “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” may be purchased or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Pig-Trails-Rabbit-Holes-Southerner/dp/B09GQSNYL2

Stories I Need to Tell My Grandchildren

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

An Introduction

The time and place of my birth and early life seems alien today…the middle of the Twentieth Century in a Southern, rural, farming community. There is little resemblance of my childhood world to the modern one. A Baby Boomer, I might have grown up in a foreign country…or another planet. I did grow up in a different century. It is certainly not your world, my grandchildren, my loves.

I feel the need to tell stories. Hopefully you will recognize the language, hopefully you will learn that your roots run deep.

The hands of the clock moved slower then…there had to be more than twenty-four hours in the day.  Not because we were bored but because it seemed we did so much in the time that we had. Days so rich and so filled, there had to be more minutes in the day than the 1440 we have now. 

In the time of my youth, cotton was still king with cotton gins and textile mills running at full capacity.  Pulp wooders were still stripping the hills of pine trees to feed the hungry paper mill just across the river from my home.  John Deere tractors pulled disc harrows or hay bailers toward the river bottoms. There were more cows than people, when “backyards” included vast pastures and mixed forests. There were no traffic lights and few stop signs.

Dark-skinned truck drivers were still carrying huge loads of red clay past our house to Ashe Brick Company in distant Van Wyck.  Distant…which was just down the road a piece but might as well have been on a different continent.

Little white boys with crew cuts and flattops standing out in their yard giving the black truckers a universal sign of pumping fists they smilingly returned by blasting us with their air horns.  They seemed to never tire of it, I know we didn’t.  Huge grins blindingly white against dark complexions.

My little brother playing in a sandy ditch using his voice to mock the trucks as they shifted through their gears, pushing his Tonka Toy Truck as he did.  My parents worried he would destroy his vocal cords if he didn’t quit. I might have wished that he had…but just a time or two.

Sitting under a huge pecan tree on a hill above a two lane blacktop, watching the sparse traffic and being able to recognize the cars of friends, family, and acquaintances, some by their distant sound.  There was always a stir when a new model cruised by. Knowing who the occupants were just by the cars they drove. Everyone waved and smiled.  It truly was a different era.

It was a different time because my family was still intact, and the place of my youth still existed.  Family and place are important. Two hilltops and two ‘hollers’ filled with extended families.  Grandparents and Great Grandparents, uncles and aunts, all making sure we always toed the line. The old Nigerian proverb ‘Oran a azu nwa’, “it takes a community or village to raise a child,” certainly was true.  

Cousins to play with even though I was between generations.  Younger than one generation and older than another, I sat dead in the middle, alone. It didn’t matter.  My closest friends of the same age were just across the road or just up the road apiece, all within walking distance.  I am amazed at how long an hour of playtime was during those days.

Forays through our mixed forest into the piney woods across the “crick “ to the Morris’ home or across the road, walking past the scary kudzu shrouded ravine to the Jackson’s.  An active imagination wondered what might be lurking there. What animal or monster, or if the kudzu might reach out and kidnap me. An unofficial club house in a privet shrouded share cropper’s home that sat abandoned next to my house.

If we had a penny we might trek to Pettus’ or Yarbrough’s store for a small Sugar Daddy or BB Bat. “You be careful crossing that road, now, Stop, look, and listen.” Traffic was sparse but our parents still worried.

There were few families in my little world I wasn’t related to.   If the last name was Griffin, Pettus, Perry, Rodgers or Wilson, our family trees probably merged at some point…sometimes becoming quite tangled or maybe without limbs at all. An aunt on one side of the family was also an aunt on the other side of the family, and also my third grade teacher. I need to ask questions because I don’t exactly remember how that came to be. The last name, Miller, was a rare one but then my Dad was a transplant from Fort Mill, thirteen miles away.

Playing football or baseball in the stubble of harvested hay, or corn, or cotton in the field across the road.  At least we didn’t have to worry about avoiding cow patties, but we never learned to hook or popup slide, either. 

Corn cob fights around the corn crib and barn where we did worry about cow patties.  The forts and tree house we built on a bluff above a stream that led to the distant Catawba until cut by one of Bowers’ lakes…not so distant after all.  Playing war in the eroded red clay banks between the cotton and corn fields.  Our parents threatening to tan our hides because of the ruined clothes, once white tee shirts forever stained by the red clay.

Walking or riding my bike down the dusty “river road” to Bowers’ ponds teaming with blue gills, largemouth, and the occasional catfish.  On to the river that seemed so distant then…probably no more than two or three miles away today. Could it have moved closer?

I wish I had asked my grandparents more questions. “What was it like during the depression?” “What did it feel like to see your first car?” “What was it like to work on the railroad.” “How did you make your biscuits so moist on the inside and buttery crisp on the outside.” Hopefully these stories will answer some of your questions after my soul joins “The parade of souls marching across the sky.”

I’m going to tell stories that will be alien to you.  I hope you will take the time to read them sometime.  Hopefully, they will be educational.  Hopefully, you will want to read them.  Maybe you should read them to your mother and father, too.  Some will be humorous, some painful, some will just be.  All will be written with love.

An introduction to Stories I Need to Tell My Grandchildren, a work in progress.

***

Don Miller’s Amazon site: https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0jXxoLIhO8m6Oz6EZ3yUhX3TS3YHpsX0ldPJIFZxBDXQNB8JiA4in1Sgw

Quote from Goodreads.

Image produced by Canva

Quote “The parade of souls marching across the sky.” from the song Wheel Inside a Wheel by Mary Gauthier.

A July Flies’ Sweet Song

…or everything you thought you wanted to know about July flies but were afraid to ask.

Heard my first July fly…I know, some of you have been dealing with the Brood X Cicada for a while now but this is significant. Yours are dying down, mine are just beginning to sing. I heard my July fly on July the First.  Significant, right?  I lead a simple life. It is significant to me!

His song singing might be a little early by the calendar, but I don’t think July flies worry much about the calendar. Probably something about his circadian rhythm.  Maybe daylight savings time screwed his up his rhythms as it did mine.

I’m pretty sure this was an annual cicada and after nearly a year underground as a nymph he was probably happy to see daylight.  The little big-eyed monster was singing to beat the band.  I hope little Suzy Q was listening. It was neat to hear an individual cicada’s distinctive voice. One voice seems to get lost when a million are singing. Individually it sounded more like the rapid clicks made by one of the old “cricket” clickers from my childhood. Very rapid I might add.

PLYMOUTH CRICKET Vintage Metal Clicker Toy Noise Maker Chrysler Car Advertising
Toy “clicker” used to advertise Chrysler products. Press it, it clicks.

I know this cicada was a male because female July flies don’t sing.  They don’t have the ability because they don’t have something called tymbals, membranes on the cicada’s exoskeleton used to produce sounds. All the females can do is flick their wings to make a faint clicking sound…or maybe they are just playing hard to get.

Noisy Cicadas Are Widely Misunderstood
A Brood X hanging out. Getty Image

Male July flies on the other hand have several tunes they sing.  For instance, they have the cicada equivalent of “Hey Baby!  You lookin’ good.  What’s your sign? Come on give me a little wing.”  If the female flicks her wings, she is answering, “Hey big boy, how ’bout you come over and see me some time.” If he accepts the invitation, and he will, it is time for faire l’amour.

The males have a defensive song; it is the one you hear when you pick one up.  Sounds like a bee as in, “I’m trying to fool you into thinking I’m a hornet. Put me down this instance!” 

Then there are the male’s most favorite song, the “Ooh Baby, Baby. That was great, how was it for you? Cigarette? Wanna make me a sandwich?” song. 

I have been using July fly and cicada interchangeably because I grew up calling the cicada a July fly.  Something about my Southern upbringing I do reckon. When I Googled July flies to make sure, I did not get a definitive answer.  Some places call the cicada locusts, others Jar flies, or Dog Day flies, still others call them Harvest flies. I’m pretty sure they aren’t locusts because we have locusts too and they look nothing like my childhood cicadas/July flies. As a child, I played with enough cicada shells to know the difference.

Cicada Shell

I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties BAC. BAC as in, Before Air Conditioning.  Oh, it had been invented, it just hadn’t found its way to my abode on Route 2, Highway 521, Fort Mill, SC.  Cicadas, on the other hand, had found their way there and in quantity.  Over the sound of my sweat glands trying to drown me and a window fan, I remember the cycling sound of gazillions of male cicadas singing to their one true love. They usually reached their peak in mid to late July and early August.  I tend to relate them to the hottest days of summer.  The days of ripening corn, tomatoes, and armpits. The Summer days of a gracious plenty of humidity and mosquitoes.

When my bride and I first moved into our “little piece of heaven”, air conditioning hadn’t found its way to our ancient farmhouse in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, either.  My five-year-old daughter came down from her bedroom rubbing the sleep from her eyes and made a whimpering sound as she asked, “Can you turn them off?”  

“Turn what off, Sweet Pea?”

“Those thing-ees, outside my window.  They’re so loud.”

It probably wasn’t the last time I failed her.  July fly choirs are loud reaching ninety decibels which is the same decibel level as a lawnmower.  “Sorry baby.  I can’t turn them off.  Try to think of it as a lullaby.” 

When their singing crescendos in late July, their song seems to cycle into a clackety-clickety, clackety-clickety, clackety-clickety resonance.  The cycling reminds me of dark mornings when I stood outside of a cotton mill weave room waiting for the light to flash foretelling eight hours of what I thought of as hell on earth.   The seven hundred and fifty Draper looms cycled the same way from a distance.  When the weave room door opened, the cycling was replaced by a den of sound with no boundaries.  I doubt many of you know the sound I’m talking about since weave rooms are far and in between these days.

The July flies only live for a few weeks so I will not begrudge them their singing.  The males will sing, the females will click their wings and lay their eggs in twigs and leaves.  In a few weeks, the eggs will hatch, the nymphs will fall to the ground and burrow in for another one, thirteen, or seventeen years.  The “cicadian” cycle will begin again. 

Side trip: “You say circadian, I say cicadian. Let’s call the whole thing off.” It turns out I have been missaying “cicadian rhythm” for years…since I first mis-learned the word. I understand I’m not the only person confused. While cicadas have circadian rhythms they do not have cicadian rhythms. The term “circadian” stems from the Latin “circa” (which means “around“) and “diem” (which means “day”). It has nothing to do with cicadas despite their own rhythms and my own faulty hearing.

A second side trip: “Cricket clickers” were used by paratroopers in World War Two to identify each other after a night jump such as the night before Operation Overlord, the D-Day landing. A single click was to be followed by a double click. If it wasn’t, someone might end up dead. That was the plan at least.

 ***

Cicada painting by Louise Holland

Books by Don Miller may be published at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1Smn0AExgDblqvTnANFmKq44x7fzmXw07t9WNlbgdBSpzqv4-X7Pt1EfE

Of Birds, Grandmothers, and Eisenhower Republicans

Continuing to write chapters in my head from the unwritten book entitled Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes, I find myself meandering along a twisting path and disappearing into Alice’s rabbit hole, again. Maybe I’ll encounter a hookah smoking caterpillar. The Mad Hatter has already taken up residence in my head.  A bit of hashish might calm him.

It is a dark, raw, and dreary day here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  It is the kind of day rabbits and wild pigs should be tucked safely in their burrows, huddled together for warmth.  I am warm, sitting in front of a fire, watching my birds gorge themselves on sunflower seeds and suet. You can add a squirrel or five and an occasional “Chester”, a name my wife has given to the ground squirrels that seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate.  All are eating me out of house and home.

I’m drawn to thoughts and mental photos of my Grandmother’s bird feeders.  I don’t remember squirrels in attendance but there were plenty of little chipmunks around. 

My grandmother would be proud of my collection of avian acrobats.  Cardinals, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, and sparrows have been joined by gold and purple finches, their spring mating colors beginning to show. Cardinals are pretty but they are mean.  They take nothing off anyone, not even the squirrels.

Below the feeders, towhees, robins, doves, and a brown thrasher dig, waiting on “manna” from heaven to fall from the feeders.  Same with two chipmunks.  Where are the mockingbirds and catbirds?  I really must get a platform feeder with some fruit offerings.

On clear days my Red Tails cavort, riding the thermals and gleefully whistling to each other. But it is not a clear day.

Yeah, Nannie would be proud…until the impeachment trial lit up on my TV screen.  I doubt she would have any pride in anything I watched and I should have stayed tuned into the chipmunks.

My grandmother was an Eisenhower Republican.   Maybe I am too…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I know that Eisenhower nor Kennedy would recognize their respective parties today.  I also know the transition didn’t occur over night. It has been a treacherous highway we have traveled and appear to continue to travel.

As I researched “Ike’s” childhood and early life, I realized how similar my grandparent’s forefathers and mothers resembled the President’s.  Their forbearers, German, Scot, Irish and English, probably arrived in the New World via Pennsylvania like my forbearers.  My forefathers and mothers headed South through Virginia, North Carolina, to finally South Carolina and a hard scrabble existence as farmers, drummers, and cabinet makers. There might have been a huckster or two among them.

President Eisenhower’s forbearers headed to Virginia and then west to Kansas, south to Texas and then back to Kansas.  His family lived in poverty as hard times struck the mid-west.  Ike worked on a dairy along with his brother, helping his mechanic and dairy farming father scratch out a living.  There are a lot of similarities when faced with a hard scrabble life.

When I was a child, my grandmother forced me to read.  My grandmother’s tutelage was fully supported and enforced by my parents.  Sometimes quite painfully enforced. During summer vacations I would be led to meet the county bookmobile and forced to pick books to read.  It was decided I would pick three, all to be completed before the ancient, converted school bus returned two weeks later. Over time I found myself picking four or five books on my own.

I remember one choice chronicled Eisenhower’s early life.  How he almost lost his leg to a freak football injury.  Refusing an amputation, he somehow survived and grew up to be General Eisenhower of WW II fame and the Thirty-Fourth President of the United States.

He was a heroic figure and, despite the warts we all have, I understand my grandmother’s adulation. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and with twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy to see missteps as he dealt with the recovery from WW II, the escalating Cold War, and building Civil Rights movement.   It should also be easy to see his positives. Despite not being able to stop nuclear proliferation, it was one of the most prosperous times both economically, scientifically, and artistically.  In some ways it might have spoiled us.

The first election I remember was the 1956 election, Eisenhower running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson.  It had no significance for a six year old. I was still playing cowboys and outlaws. I remember it because my grandmother seemed to be concerned.  She left her radio on all night awaiting the election news.  From my bed in the corner of her room I remember her whispered prayers. She shouldn’t have been worried.  It was a landslide for Eisenhower.

Despite the duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack I experienced as a child, I can’t help but wish an Eisenhower incarnation had been elected to deal with Covid-19 and the social unrest we are experiencing.  I liked his attitude of diplomacy first. I know today’s responses would have been different and so would the outcomes. 

I remember or studied later his responses to Polio and the Salk vaccine, Sputnik, McCarthy, fireworks in the Middle East and Asia, carrying out Truman’s executive orders desegregating the military, an interstate system…even if was built to move the military rapidly from one place to another.  A response might have been the wrong one in hindsight, but there was a response, usually with diplomacy first. There was no inactivity. 

Then maybe I’m deluding myself.  Is it the differences in Presidents or the differences in Americans? 

I still think I’ll characterize myself as an Eisenhower Republican…or a Kennedy Democrat.  I just heard a squirrel land on my bird feeder…or was it my grandmother spinning in her grave.  She was not a Kennedy fan, at least at first. He was a rich, Massachusetts’s Catholic after all.  Unlike Eisenhower, my grandmother grew up in a world so different from Kennedy’s it might well have been another planet. I doubt she was a Nixon fan either as history played out.

Oh well. The rain has slacked off and my bird feeders need to be refilled. It is another day and there will be no trial coverage. Since there is a chance of winter weather on Tuesday my grandmother would agree that I need to make sure my wood stores are replenished. “Yes ma’am, I’ll get those bird feeders first.”

For more pig trails and rabbit holes https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3oAjNYooKiVzCcXTBVNofhw-T3ZwvoWeD90Y-Uv_KI1Y8lpyLBOC-HK2M

The image of Eisenhower is from Wardlaw Museum, University of St. Andrews.

Celebrating the “Dreaded” Black History Month.

In the middle of the Obama years, I got the dreaded “When are you going to teach white history?” question.  Tomorrow, February 1, two administrations later, I’m sure I’ll see some of the same.  I will be disgusted because many will come from folks, I want to respect but find that I can’t.  We can agree to disagree but not on racism.

Why are some of “white” America so “butthurt” over Black History Month? I have seen social memes and comments that have included “When is White America going to have a Month?” “Black History Month is Racist!” “Why do we have to have a Black History Month?”

An answer to the last question, in a perfect world, YOU WOULDN’T. Nor would you have Women’s History Month, in March, a Native American Heritage Month, in November, a Hispanic Heritage Month beginning in the middle September or any of the others that you can take the time to look up. Unfortunately, we are not, nor have we been, living in a perfect world. To quote a former student, “We celebrate white history in all months that don’t begin with F.” I agree with my student.

As a retired, high school history teacher I know history books are written from a decidedly Anglo-American point of view…well…at least where I taught, a deeply red, conservative state. A state that almost required D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as required viewing, along with Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and Walter Raleigh’s “Ivanhoe” as required reading.

During the course of a year, Asians are mentioned about four times. Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Gentleman’s Agreement, the Japanese involvement in World War Two and China goes communist.  I almost forgot Korea and Vietnam. That makes five and six.

Hispanic contributions, maybe a bit more. Spanish colonization, Mexican American War, Imperialism, Pancho Villa, and then a jump to NAFTA and the question “Why are they taking our jobs?” Wait, we fixed that one didn’t we? Notice, these are all mostly decidedly negative when viewed from an Anglo point of view.

Native Americans are prominent but disappear after Wounded Knee unless you happen to bring them back up in the Sixties with the many social movements. Again, until recently, Custer’s Last Stand was viewed negatively by Anglo America. Damn Redskins stepping on our Manifest Destiny and the only good Indian…! I digress.  The Washington Football Team cured all those ills this past season. (said with sarcasm)

I rarely taught Black history during Black History Month. I was wrong. I deluded myself into thinking that I taught EVERYONE’S HISTORY ALL YEAR LONG and didn’t need to focus on a Black History Month. Then I began to assess what I had taught. I’m not happy. Kind of like ALL HISTORY CAN’T MATTER UNTIL BLACK HISTORY MATTERS.

Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois versus Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and maybe Malcomb X. There were others but most were only related to one aspect of African American lives and American history. A decidedly important aspect but besides George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes, there was nothing about other contributions.

Black History Month should be viewed as an opportunity to spotlight contributions by African Americans. Musicians, artists, writers, poets, inventors, explorers, scientists, businesspeople, soldiers, etc.  It should be an opportunity for us all to learn. 

As a teen, I picked up one of my father’s books, Foxes of Harrow. It was written by Frank Yerby. I read all his books that my father had and along the way picked up a few more. They featured historical fiction with a bit of…latent eroticism. Nothing graphic but I was a teen boy, it didn’t take much!

As a young adult, I was looking for more of Yerby’s books not realizing he had died and found out he was bi-racial and from Georgia…which meant, because of the “one-drop law”, he was black. Who knew and should it matter? No it shouldn’t. Just like celebrating Black History Month should not matter if you are white, green or multi-colored. It should be a positive educational experience for all.  Postscript on Yerby.  He fled his native Georgia, first for France and then Spain, where he lived for the rest of his life.  I’ll let you research why he fled.

Three of my last four years before retirement were teaching “cultural” geography. I loved it. One, I had no end of school testing pressure and could go off on any tangent I desired to go off on. I could be creative and allow creativity from my students. It became about cultural diversity, really teaching everyone’s history, all year long.

In a paragraph I wrote about a former student turned preacher I said, “Today I look toward diversity as a smorgasbord of delights. I believe we should just focus on how diversely different people party. How can you be distrustful of people who produce such wonderful food? Or music, or art, or etc…. My life without Latin, Soul, Oriental and Cajun foods would not be life-ending but life would not be as joyous, especially without a Belgian, Mexican, Jamaican or German beer or maybe some Tennessee whiskey to go with it and a Cuban cigar for afterward. Someone might as well play some Blues, Reggae or a little Zydeco to help the atmosphere along. It is just as easy to focus on the positives about diversity as it is the negatives and again with knowledge comes understanding.”

I realize that I am a social liberal swimming in a red sea of white conservatism and make no excuses. I believe that the rights that someone else is given don’t take my rights away from me including the right to celebrate Black History Month…or Cinco De Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day for that matter. In fact, I have joined in and by doing so believe I am not only a better American but a better human.

Don Miller’s Author’s Page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0mzivK_bmnTjG4D9RL1KGMQ4TurZ8y7hrFca8ExoRa_XmkEUStmSylMCc

Southern Horror

I guess I should add a disclaimer from the get-go.  My post is not about the horror of an unexpected swallow of unsweetened tea or being served grits without salt, butter, or cheese.  No, that goes well beyond horror.  This is about the horror genre and its effects on the unexpecting.  The effects of being so scared your feet refuse to move. 

A pair of New Englanders find themselves lost, stuck up to the axles of their ’56 Ford in the middle of a Southern piney woods.  The light is quickly failing over a dilapidated Southern mansion sitting at the end of an overgrown drive.  Brothers, they discuss what to do and decide to spend the night in the abandoned mansion.  Never a smart move if you are familiar with Southern Gothic.

The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
Photo by David Bulit

As they walk to the mansion a flock of pigeons are spooked…the makings of a Southern Gothic horror story for sure.  I can think of dozens of reasons it is a bad idea to spend the night in an abandoned mansion but then I have seen too many movie and TV episodes and have read too many horror stories.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Gothic Horror, specifically Southern Gothic Horror. That would be June 6, 1961.  It was a Monday night in front of a black and white TV.  I watched and listened to a lisping Boris Karloff introduce this week’s Thriller episode, “Pigeon’s From Hell.”  Murder by ax, Voodoo, Zombies, the Blassenville family with a history of abuse, all with bad Southern accents dripping from the screen like Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.  

I jumped when character Johnny Banner is caught in the afore mentioned flock of pigeons, pigeons that represented the lost souls murdered. Later, I hid my eyes when the same character attempts to split his brother Timothy’s skull with a hatchet.  He does this after having had his own skull split by persons or “things” unknown. 

Love me some murdering Zombies with split skulls although my former Haitian baseball player says Zombies are a movie creation…wait was he Haitian or Jamaican?  Does it make a difference to Zombies? 

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
Johnny ready to give forty whacks…wait, wrong movie.

Many years later I would read the short story with the same title the TV episode drew from.  It was written by pulp fiction icon and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard.  The story was published posthumously in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror magazine in 1938.  Despite “Thirties noir speak”, it is a good short story and a better story line than the TV version. 

Weird Tales - Wikipedia
Image from our favorite Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

There is something baleful about abandoned Southern mansions, with or without pigeons or Zombies.  Doors and shutters hanging askew, broken windowpanes, paint peeling to expose the silver of many layers of whitewash underneath, old chimneys collapsing under their own weight.  Columns…one can almost hear the voices of the dead and abused in the breeze especially if you have an active eleven-year-old imagination…even an active seventy-year-old imagination.

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
The decaying Blassenville sisters killed by…well, you’ll have to watch the episode on YouTube to find out.

In the late Sixties, our group of high school friends decided to explore the Brattonsville Plantation house near Rock Hill, SC…in the dead of night, near what is universally known as the witching hour.  Alcohol might have been a contributing factor; I don’t rightly remember.  I do remember there was a Mars/Venus component as we males wanted to impress the young women among our group.  Young women make young men stupid…stupider.

I won’t deny feeling a bit of trepidation as I thought about how close the name Blassenville was to Brattonsville and wondered if anyone had been practicing Voodoo within its less than comfy confines.  Pigeons?  Are there pigeons?

During those days Brattonsville was the perfect example of a “rundown” and abandoned Southern plantation.  The homeplace has since been renovated to its Antebellum glory as have the other buildings but I do not remember them that way. The mental vision I have is of a place perfect for Southern Gothic Horror.

I remember there was a full or near full moon and the unkept grounds seemed to glow with a light of their own as we made our way to the huge mansion house. In my mind I see the first story entryway door standing open, under the twin galleries’ roofs. The darkness beyond is inviting the lambs to a possible slaughter. 

Homestead House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Restoration of the Homestead began in 1975 and it was opened to the public a year later. http://chmuseums.org/history-hb/

One of the members of our group was well versed in Brattonville’s “supposed” history and regaled us with stories of a less than sane family, abused slaves, the Klu Klux Klan, cruel medical experiments and a Yankee spy hung from a pulley above an attic window.  Owned since before the Revolutionary War by a series of doctors, our historian told tales that made the Bratton doctors seem to be the combinations of Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Phibes.

We explored all the rooms and made our way to the third-floor attic, site of the medical laboratory and the hanging according to my date’s history lesson.  I had overcome my initial fear and found myself leading the group, not because of my bravery I assure you, but because I had the only flashlight.

Built for John Simpson Bratton Jr. and his wife Harriet Rainey Bratton in 1856. Then called “Forrest Hall,” it is now known as “Hightower Hall”. It could have been its own haunted mansion. https://chmuseums.org/hightower-hall-hb/

As my cute historian told her story of hangings and medical experiments, I found myself in the narrow and empty attic lab…not exactly empty.  There appeared to be examination tables and I fully expected to see a medical skeleton. Instead, a breeze drew my attention to an open window and the figure hung with a perfect hangman’s noose suspended there.   

I froze in place while my five friends took off like scalded haints.  My brain said run, my feet refused.  I might as well have been a tree rooted in place.  I froze long enough to realize what I was seeing was a department store mannequin.  The plastic kind…in fact one of its legs had fallen off.

As my fright dissipated, I found my feet and walked closer.  As the mannequin slowly turned in the breeze, I noticed a note held around its neck by a cord.  My flash revealed a single sentence written in red lipstick…”Mickey Mouse is a Jew.”  Yeah, kind of anti-climactic but a sentence that has kept me wondering for over fifty years. 

My friends? They didn’t leave me…I had the car keys. It did take a while to gather them up.

Historic Brattonsville main house.jpg
The Main House at Brattonsville with the memorable attic window visible
Picture by Zan Maddox of LaValla Maddox Design.

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The history of Brattonsville (documented history) includes  

The original home was built in 1776 by Colonel William Bratton who participated in the nearby Revolutionary War Battle between Patriots and Loyalist, The Battle of Huck’s Defeat. Brattonsville was used in the filming of the movie, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.

There was a one night stay by Jefferson Davis as he fled the surrender of Richmond in hopes of reaching Confederate troops in the South or West. (Supposedly this is when the spy was hung but I can find no documentation.)

Dr. J. Rufus Bratton, a York County Klan leader, was the inspiration for the book The Clansman and the 1918 movie it spawned, Birth of a Nation. I am not telling this with any sort of pride but history is history. My guess is Dr. Rufus Bratton was not a nice person when it came to race relations.

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Don Miller’s authors page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0pjOyQmBib8Mbptaegd7cbdhBk1Dqd3AwEssRjtjCtVGq4zxV2P_c9zKk

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The featured image is from another Southern Gothic film, Swamp Water, starring Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, and Walter Huston.