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Watermelons, fish, skinny-dipping & dynamite

I recently told the tale of how three of us, all miscreants and all active members of the United States Air Force stationed at Moody Air Force Base near the city of Valdosta, Georgia decided to raid a watermelon patch one Saturday night with the laudable purpose of illegally obtaining enough watermelons to have a Sunday watermelon party for ourselves and for our fellow barracks occupants. We felt that it would be a friendly, patriotic, doable and inexpensive gesture, especially since the watermelons would be free and the only other things we needed would be knives, forks and salt—yes, salt, because watermelon without salt is just watermelon. Click here for the original story of our night-time foray—our incursion into enemy territory, so to speak.

The knives and forks and salt could be easily lifted—oops, I meant borrowed—from our military dining facility, aka mess hall or chow hall, and by some as our slop shop. For those readers unfamiliar with the word slop—and there are lots of city folks, especially New Yorkers, that won’t know—slop is the mixture fed to pigs, and could be comprised entirely of commercial grains or entirely of table scraps or a combination of both.

As for a location for the party, the air base was surrounded by oak and pine forests, and our plan was to combine the watermelon feast with one of our frequent weekend sojourns into the woods to skinny-dip in one of the many dark-water creeks in the area—usually on such outings we consumed only beer—we felt that the melons would be appreciated by all.

The blast from that farmer’s shotgun on that night, on that quiet and peaceful rural road in South Georgia, resounded seemingly with the force of the explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima that ended World War II. Well, maybe not quite that loud, but it was at least as loud as the time a certain brother-in-law left me sitting in my car at an isolated location in that south Georgia area while he disappeared into the woods to a place where beavers had dammed a small creek and formed a fairly large body of water behind their dam.

When he disappeared in the bushes after telling me to wait in the car he was carrying a small bag, and a few minutes later when he burst from the bushes running toward the car, laughing like crazy, there was a tremendous explosion that told me the bag had contained dynamite, and the explosion was so loud and so unexpected that it almost resulted in me soiling my seat covers. He had wired the dam with the dynamite and blew it up, based on his belief that the pool created by the beavers’ dam would yield tons and tons of fish—trout, bass, perch, catfish, etc., perhaps even a sailfish or two—no, I made up the part about the sailfish.

I never learned whether the use of dynamite brought anything to my brother-in-law’s table. We left the area in considerable haste, spurred on by his admonition that someone may have heard the explosion and would come to investigate. My brother-in-law said he would return later to check on the effectiveness of his work with the dynamite, sometime after the reverberations had subsided and possible searchers for the source of the explosion had left the area. I never asked him how the fishing was, and he never volunteered the information.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
 

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Revisit—11th Street South and a rabbit . . .

I recently visited this posting and found it to be a fascinating and exceptional piece of literature, so I decided to re-post it for the benefit of the throngs that have been fortunate enough to have found my blog in the interim. It is my humble and modest opinion, with all seriousness set aside, that any reading or re-reading of this classic tale will enchant and delight everyone that passes this way. It’s a long read, but it’s highly educational, entertaining and well worth your time and effort—honest!

11th Street South and a rabbit . . .

When I left Plato’s realm of spirits—mind you, I was and I remain one of Plato’s ideal philosophical souls—and entered this world, I became part of a family that included my mother, one brother and five sisters, three living sisters and two dead, and no father—well, of course I had a father, but my parents were divorced a few months before I was born, a situation that technically makes me a little bastard. That technicality doesn’t bother me, even though it has been verbally confirmed many times by many people over the course of my life. Those verbal confirmations have decreased significantly since I retired from the workforce and relinquished my responsibilities and duties as a manager and supervisor of federal employees.

The Great Depression was in full swing when I left the world of souls and appeared on this planet. My brother Larry was away from home, gainfully occupied in building roads in Utah and other western states, roads that in his words started nowhere and ended nowhere. Early in the 1930s he joined the CCC—Civilian Conservation Corps—one of the alphabet organizations created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and helped build highways and tunnels in the western part of the United States, systems that would attract many millions of people in the future to our national parks. Following his stint with the CCC, he joined the U.S. Navy at the start of World War II and remained overseas through most of that conflict and never returned to the family except for short visits.

I have only retained two events over the first six years of my life that included my brother. The first memory is one of us fishing in a creek that meandered along near the house my family lived in at the time, a rental house owned by a local doctor named Box, the doctor that delivered me. Located on the outskirts of Vernon, Alabama, it was referred to as the old Box place—my family moved there from my place of birth, the old home place located some five miles south of town—I was little more than a toddler at the time. If you like, you can click here to read about the monumental event of my birth, Unto you this day a child was born. It’s a well-told tale with tons of family history and well worth your time—trust me!

The other memory involves a washtub in the front yard, filled with ice and beer, and my family enjoying and celebrating my brother’s visit. It also involves a partially filled beer left on a table within reach of a small night-shirted boy, and a set of high steps leading up to the front door of our house. The steps were necessary because the house was built on brick piers in an area prone to flooding. I have a vivid memory of standing on the top step in full view of the family gathered around the tub of ice and beer in the front yard and tossing the contents of my stomach—whatever food I had ingested along with the warm beer I had consumed—all over the steps.

Bummer!

I lived at the old Box place with my mother and three sisters. My mother and the two older sisters worked at a garment factory in Columbus, Mississippi, a city thirty miles west of Vernon, just across the Alabama-Mississippi state line. The women walked a short distance to and from town Monday through Friday and traveled to and from their work site on a county school bus set aside for that purpose. They necessarily left at an early hour and arrived home at a late hour every evening.

I and my youngest sister, a child just 18 months older than I, were left in the care of a lady that lived within walking distance. She came to our house early each morning and waited until the women left for work before escorting my sister and me to her house—she returned us home just before the women were due to arrive from work. With her husband and a passel of kids—my mother’s term—ranging from toddlers to young adults, she lived, loved, maintained her family and helped perform the many tasks involved in farming.

Whether they were the owners or were sharecroppers will never be known, but my guess is that they farmed on shares with the owners. Today the family would be called African-American, but at that time they were called everything except that hyphenated politically correct term—my family referred to them as black folks, or blacks, or that black family—other terms were available and quite popular at the time, but none were used by my family. This was a black family that included two white children five days every week, a boy and a girl, both preschoolers, two children that shared playtime and mealtime and after-dinner naps on the front porch with the family and loved every minute of every day.

My family left Vernon and moved to Columbus, Mississippi when I was five years old. My sister entered the first grade on our arrival there, and I entered the first grade the following year. That year is so filled with memories that I must reserve it for a separate posting, and I will include in this posting a third memory of my brother Larry.

He came home for a Christmas visit from his labors under the auspices of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. That winter Columbus, Mississippi had an unusually heavy snowfall, and my brother took me on a rabbit hunt, armed only with a broomstick—just the stick, no broom. The broom part was badly worn and my brother sawed off that part. We walked a short distance from our house to a snow-covered field that served as a dumping ground for discarded items such as broken furniture, mattresses, wire-coil bed springs, old stoves and other such refuse. Yes, we lived on the south side of the city, the part that was known as the wrong side of town, an area subjected to such dumping.

This is how one hunts rabbits after a heavy snowfall—one takes a broomstick and pounds on any pile of junk where a rabbit might choose to hide, and chases the rabbit when it leaves its cover. In a heavy snowfall rabbits can’t run, so they tend to flee by burrowing under the snow rather than jumping in and out of it. Ergo, the mighty hunter simply follows the unseen rabbit as it ripples the surface of the snow by burrowing under it, estimates the location of the rabbit’s head—not a difficult task, not even for a southerner, and strikes with the broomstick a number of times, enough time sufficient to render the animal ready for skinning, cleaning and cooking.

My brother only found one rabbit with all his pounding, and that one did exactly as expected, and brother did exactly as narrated above, but landed just one blow with the stick. The rabbit’s forward motion was stopped, and on examination was found to be very much alive, only stunned by the blow but no more blows were struck. I pleaded with my brother to not kill it, and let me take it home as a pet.

And so it was. I carried a new-found pet rabbit home—I never knew whether it was male or female, but just for discussion I’ll say it was a female—perhaps I hoped for some baby rabbits. I had no way to secure her, neither inside the house nor outside, and one of my older sisters suggested I make a leash and tie her to a bedpost, and using a six-year old boy’s imagination, I did as suggested.

At this point the reader should probably keep a hankie or a box of Kleenex handy.

I fashioned a leash from a discarded pair of nylon stockings, those with the black seams running the length of the stockings, seams that ladies of the day were constantly adjusting to keep them straight on the backs of their legs. I knotted the stockings together, then secured one end of the leash to the cottontail’s neck and the other to a bedpost. My new-found pet could move around no farther than the length of nylon, so whatever deposits he made during the night would be restricted to a small area.

Okay, folks, here’s where you’ll need the hankie or the Kleenex. When I went to sleep my pet was warm and cuddly and full of life, but the next morning she was cold and stiff and dead, choked by the nylon that had tightened during the night with her circling around and around the bedpost.

I know, I know—I know just how you feel, but just blow your nose and wipe away your tears. It happened some 71 years ago, and I will say to you exactly what Lloyd Bridges said in the made-for-television movie Cold Sassy Tree. This is what he said in answer to his children when they learned he intended to marry his long-time office manager although his wife—their mother—had been dead less than a year. What he said was,

Well, she ain’t gonna get any deader!

And that rabbit ain’t gonna get any deader either, so dry your tears. I assure you that never again—not in all those years, not even once—have I strangled another rabbit by leaving it tied to a bedpost with a knotted pair of ladies’ nylons, nor have I ever strangled another rabbit by any other method, nor have I ever advised my children or the children of others to do such—in fact, largely because of that sad event I have strongly stressed that all should respect the value of life, both for humans and for the so-called lower orders of life.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2010 in Childhood, Family, Humor, neighbors, race, Uncategorized

 

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Second letter to Larry, my brother (1919-1983) . . .

Dear Larry,

Next month will mark the twenty-seventh year that has passed since that October day in 1983 when you, as Shakespeare has so poignantly observed, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” As you probably are aware, I did not attend your funeral, but I can make no apology for that—when the call came with the news, I was en route to Washington’s National Airport to take a flight to Miami for an assignment that was critical to my job with the U.S. Customs Service.

I had prepared for the flight for several weeks and could not afford to miss it. I’m sure you understand—the bills were still arriving with monotonous regularity—I know it’s trite to say, but I needed to be able to “put food on the table and shoes on the baby’s feet.” Please know that I was there with you in spirit—I thought of little else on the flight to Florida.

I’ve written letters to two of our sisters, Hattie and Jessie, and I plan to write to Dot and Lorene, our other two sisters, and possibly in the future to our mother, our father and even to the stepfather our mother unwisely allowed into the family in 1942. All are gone now, but I trust and would like to believe that you are in communication with them. I have serious doubts that the stepfather is available—he may be somewhat lower on the metaphysical level of existence than the others.

I would like to couch this letter in terms of us remembering certain times when we were together. My memories are still just as fresh as they ever were, and I hope yours are also—I would not want to talk about happenings that you may not remember.

I remember vividly the fishing trip you took me on when I was about four, perhaps five years old. We lived at the old Box place in Vernon, Alabama, and we went fishing in Yellow Creek near the house. My float went under and I snatched the hook out of the water and snagged it on an overhead branch. I thought I had a really big fish until you reached up to remove the hook—I was really disappointed, but at least you had a good laugh.

You were at home on leave from President Roosevelt’s CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps—a respite from helping build in Utah what you described as“ roads that started nowhere and ended nowhere.” The family had a homecoming party that included a washtub filled with ice and beer. Someone left a partially filled can on an inside table and I drank some of it, and a short while later I stood on the top step of our front porch and barfed it up in view of the entire family. Shades of child abuse!

Do you remember taking me on a rabbit hunt on a snow-covered day just a year two later when I was in the first grade? We were living on Eleventh Street South in Columbus, Mississippi and you were home, once again, from Roosevelt’s CCC. We only found one rabbit that day, but that one generated memories that are burned into my psyche—memories of the rabbit, a nylon stocking and a bedpost that will always be there. A click here will refresh your memory and will create a memory for any potential viewer of this letter.

Do you remember when I was living with you and your wife Toni and your two boys in Suitland, Maryland and I broke my right leg sliding in to home plate in a ball game? I had a full cast from my toes to mid-thigh, with a forty-five degree angle at the knee, and you bought a set of crutches for my use. Long before the cast came off, I used one of the crutches in an attempt to kill a pesky bee and broke it—the crutch, not the bee—the bee escaped unharmed. In spite of my pleas, you refused to replace the crutch, saying that what I did was dumb, that it’s impossible to buy just one crutch and you told me to manage with the remaining crutch—I managed.

I wrote a long-winded story, more than a bit fictional, of that broken leg, a tale that was told and can be found here. The tale tells how I and my Little League team won the national and international championship that year.

You bought me my first bicycle, a beautiful item that needed only the pedals, seat and handlebars installed to make it complete, but you made me disassemble it right down to the wheel bearings which I cleaned and repacked with the special grease you used on your fleet of trucks. I followed orders with some resentment, but I realize now that your method contributed to the bike’s longevity and to my safety. Click here for the full story of my first bike, first kiss and first train ride.

You may have put this memory aside, but I remember coming home late one evening and you were seated in the living room with a half-full pint of whiskey, and Toni was crawling around on her hands and knees on the floor, groaning and moaning and mumbling. You explained that you had caught her at a place where she should not have been, with a person she should not have been with. You said she had swallowed a lot of sleeping pills and that you would take her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped out after she went to sleep. Toni was mumbling something over and over that sounded suspiciously like he hit me, but I couldn’t be sure—it could have been my imagination.

Being a young fellow of at least average intelligence, I took my leave and returned to the apartment in Suitland that our mother and our sister Dot were renting from month-to-month, and stayed there until things quieted down. We never discussed the incident after that evening—I don’t know whether you took her to the hospital or to a doctor. I’m guessing that she did the same thing with the pills that I did with the beer I drank at that party some ten years earlier. That would probably have rendered a trip to the hospital or to a doctor unnecessary.

The outcome of that incident was a temporary breakup of your family. Toni and the boys went to her mother’s place in New York City, and you and I returned to Mississippi. I have no knowledge of your activities or whereabouts for several years, and just four years later in 1948 I was reunited with you and your family in El Paso, Texas as the result of our stepfather casting me, our mother and our sister Dot aside in Midland, Texas and we managed to negotiate the 300 miles to El Paso on a Greyhound bus.

That refuge was broken up a short while later—our mother and sister returned to Mississippi, your wife and sons took a plane to New York City, and you and I pursued her—our pursuit first took us to Dallas where we met the Greyhound bus you thought she may have taken from El Paso. You said she may have taken the train and we could meet the train in St. Louis. We failed to meet the train in St. Louis because we spent the night in jail in Valley Park, a suburb some 20 miles west of St. Louis. We continued on to New York City and stayed with Toni and the children in her mother’s apartment in Greenwich Village for several weeks, and finally from there back to Mississippi. If your memory is faulty in this instance and you have access to the Internet, click here for the full story of our trip across the continent to New York.

Do you remember the sleeping arrangements in your mother-in-law’s apartment? It was a two-room affair with a tiny bathroom, and we slept, cooked and dined in one large room—pretty crowded but far better than our room in the Valley Park jail. I was accustomed to such luxurious surroundings from years spent in places that either had no bathroom or the bathroom was somewhere down the hall and shared with others.

As for our sleeping arrangements, I remember that the two boys shared a baby bed, and each night we placed the top mattress of the only bed on the floor for you and Toni, and I slept on the bottom mattress on the bed near the window.

I’m sure you remember the night when an intruder threw a leg over the sill of the apartment’s only window! Although we were on the second floor of the building, someone managed to climb up and enter through the open window. The shade was pulled down—yes, windows had shades in those days—and when the intruder straddled the window sill the shade rustled and you awoke and shouted and threw a shoe at the window. One loud curse and the burglar was gone. We never knew exactly how the person climbed up to the window. Evidently the intruder survived the drop, because there was nobody in sight when we finally got up enough nerve to raise the shade and take a look outside.

We finished the night with the window closed, and without the occasional breezes that slipped into the apartment. We had a really uncomfortable night. Nope, no air conditioning in those days, and no fan. I hadn’t slept well before the incident, and it certainly didn’t reduce my insomnia for the remaining nights in that apartment.

I remember you and Toni arguing one morning and you telling her that we were leaving and that you were taking the two children with you. I will never forget Toni running downstairs to the sidewalk, screaming for the police, and returning with two of New York’s finest. The officers said that you and I could leave and take our personal things with us, but nothing else—you were ordered, under the threat of arrest, to not attempt to take the children away from their mother.

You left the apartment before I did, and as I was leaving Toni told me that if I ever needed anything to call her. I never saw her or talked to her again—I know that she remarried, but I never knew her married name or her whereabouts, and to this day I do not know whether she has also shuffled off this mortal coil—if still alive today she would be about 86 years old. I would like to believe that she is alive and well—I have never wished her anything other than well, and whatever the event, I still wish her well.

I doubt that you ever saw the picture I’ve included in this letter. It’s from a 35-millimeter slide, probably taken in the mid-1970s—I’m guessing 1975 because there were some other slides that showed our 1975 Oldsmobile 98—it looks new, and we bought it in that year. The slide was scanned in and printed by Cindy, your niece that lives, loves and works in Alexandria, Virginia. Unless my memory fails me, the black-and-tan hound was named Bugler, and the little Cocker Spaniel in the lower right corner was named Useless.

Larry, there are many things I would like to discuss with you, but this letter seems to have legs. Let me chop them off for now, with the promise of returning soon with a whole new set of reminisces. I trust that you and any potential viewers of this letter will understand my feelings and my reasons for taking them back in time. Some of my memories are pleasant, and I enjoy speaking of them. Not all are pleasant, of course, but in this world of Yen and Yang we must take the good with the bad, and learn to smile with the one and frown with the other.

From your only brother, the only member of our family still standing—all the others are gone.

Mike

Postscript: Regarding the names of the two dogs in the image above, my memory did indeed fail me. My niece in Arkansas, my brother’s daughter, e-mailed me on 9-5-10 to say that the black-and-tan-hound was named Sam and Bugler was his pup, and the Cocker Spaniel I presented as Useless was named Puny. Thanks, Deanna, for straightening the names out for me.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Letter to Kaye and Gary, 1993 . . .

This is the complete text of a letter written to a couple in south Georgia—the state, not the country—we had recently returned from visiting relatives there. As the saying goes, there’s been lots of water under the bridge since then. The couple has since gone through a tumultuous divorce—as are most divorces. They now live in different states and their sons are grown and married—with children. My, how time does fly and how things do change—and not always for the better!

Yes, I wrote this letter on government time, but in all fairness please know that I had mastered all the rules and regulations pertaining to my duties, and was ready to spring into action should some unforeseen event occur. The time I spent waiting for work in my profession was down-time, comparable to the time fire fighters spend waiting for a fire and a call to action. For those professionals, there is a limit to how much time they can spend polishing the fire engines—eventually they’ll take the paint off the metal—and much of their time is spent sleeping, playing cards, writing letters, etc. On my watch the fire engines glistened in the overhead lights and were at all times ready to go. I feel no remorse for having used government time and government equipment for personal use.

San Antonio Int’l Airport

November 29, 1993

Hi, Kaye and Gary,

Is it Kaye or Kay? Can’t really tell just by hearing it, so I’ll take a guess at it and spell it Kaye. Either way you’ll know who I’m talking to, right? Given the fact that you’ve never gotten a letter from me it may take awhile for the shock to wear off. I’ve even shocked myself at some of the letters I’ve written recently. I’m doing the writing at work because I am bored, and I am bored because I have nothing to do—at least there is nothing I want to do. I’ve read books and magazines and worked crossword puzzles and played computer games until I’m tired of all that, so now I write letters, mostly to people who don’t expect them. All on government time, using government equipment, and drawing a government salary, even 10 percent extra because I am working nights. It’s your hard earned tax dollars at work.

I’m the supervisor on the 3-11 shift, and we only work the incoming international arrivals—passengers and baggage. There are no administrative functions to be performed after 5 pm, and we have long periods between flights, sometimes several hours. The inspectors have a television with cable in the break room, but most of them read during those down times.

We really enjoyed our visit to Georgia this time, especially the cookout. We counted 45 people there, including the little ones and the inlaws and outlaws. We don’t even know that many people here. Of course, now that I think of it, I didn’t know a lot of the people there either. I thought that you did a masterful job cooking the fish, and I’ll cheerfully recommend you in case anyone asks. However it’s my opinion that the ice chest filled with beer in the back of your pickup truck helped a lot.

We had a good trip back home. Stayed just two days with my two sisters in Mississippi, then back on the road to San Antonio. The ignition actuator broke in my truck, so I had to raise the hood and use a screwdriver—out here it’s called a Mexican ignition key—to restart the engine every time I had to shut down for gas or food or the restroom.  We hit heavy rain coming through Louisiana, but I was lucky because I didn’t have to stop for anything.

Say hello to Andy and Jacob for me. Those two have really grown since I saw them. Given enough time and enough hints, I may have been able to identify Andy in a crowd, but there wouldn’t have been enough time or hints in the world to help me recognize Jacob. He had changed so much there’s no way I would have known him.

Kids seem to grow up a lot faster these days. I think it took me a whole lot longer. And seeing all the kids at the cookout, and seeing the kid’s kids, and knowing that the kid’s kids will soon be having kids made me wonder where all the years went. I guess they just slipped by while I wasn’t looking, or maybe I was looking and just wasn’t paying attention.

And a bunch of those years have flown by. I am now one month into my 45th year of government service, 22 in the Air Force and working on 23 with the Customs Service. No wonder I feel a little bit tired. I guess when I retire I’ll do nothing—after that many years of government service, a change of pace would be impossible!

We are having all kinds of weather here. Fall and winter do not bring a lot of change to San Antonio. The leaves fall, of course, but we never get the kind of cold you folks get in Georgia. The Chamber of Commerce claims that “the sunshine spends the winter in San Antonio,” but if it does it hides out behind the clouds a lot of the time. Right now we are hurting for rain.

Hope Thanksgiving was everything it’s supposed to be for you folks. We had a good turnout here. Everybody was at our house except Cindy—lots of turkey and all the other goodies. Turkey isn’t such a treat any more. We eat so much chicken that a turkey is just another chicken—it’s just a lot bigger. I heard a television comic say the other night that he and his wife had eaten so much chicken that they threw away their mattresses and were roosting on the bed slats. We haven’t gotten that bad—yet!

Gary, you need to take time and smell the roses. Take a little trip out here. See the Alamo, do the mission trails thing, take a ride on the river barge, go broke in the River Center, take a run up to see the LBJ ranch—possibly the best bargain in the country—interesting, lots of fun, and all free—drink a few cold Lone Star beers, visit the Lone Star brewery, see the Buckhorn Hall of Horns, take in Fiesta Texas and Sea World, and maybe even fit in a trip to Nuevo Laredo to buy some Mexican junk.

Well, let me shut this thing down. I have a plane due in a few minutes. This will be the last one for tonight. It’s a Continental flight from Mexico City, with a reservation count of 64 passengers. Those flights usually have a high no-show, and this one will probably come in with about 40 passengers. We really had the passengers over Thanksgiving, coming in for the big sales after the holiday. Don’t let anybody tell you that all the visitors from Mexico are poor.

They come through here with lots of cash and every kind of credit card imaginable, and according to the Chamber of Commerce they spend millions. The planes are full and the highways coming up from Laredo and Monterrey are packed with private autos from Mexico, some of them from as far away as Mexico City, just for the after-Thanksgiving sales. By Monday everybody is gone, and we settle back and wait for the Christmas shoppers.

I said I was going to shut this thing down, but started  rambling again. Using a word processor to write letters is similar to eating peanuts, running down hill and sex—it’s hard to stop once you get started. I just had a call from the Continental people. The plane is late because of maintenance, and will be in at 15 minutes after midnight, so I’ll get home around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. This doesn’t happen too often, but even once is a pain. There’s some consolation, though—I’ll earn overtime for the late flight.

Tell Andy and Jacob to save some of the big fish for me for our next visit to Georgia.

Best regards to everyone,

Mike and Janie

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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11th Street South and a rabbit . . .

When I left Plato’s realm of spirits—mind you, I was and I remain one of Plato’s ideal philosophical souls—and entered this world, I became part of a family that included my mother, one brother and five sisters, three living and two dead, and no father—well, of course I had a father, but my parents were divorced a few months after I was born, a situation that, technically at least, makes me a little b – – – – – d. That technicality doesn’t bother me, even though it has been verbally confirmed many times by many people over the course of my life. Those verbal confirmations have decreased significantly since I retired from the workforce and relinquished my responsibilities and duties as a manager and supervisor of federal employees.

The Great Depression was in full swing when I left the world of souls and appeared on this planet. My brother  Larry was away from home, gainfully occupied in building roads in Utah and other western states, roads that in his words started nowhere and ended nowhere. Early in the 1930s he joined the CCC—Civilian Conservation Corps—one of the alphabet organizations created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and helped build highways and tunnels in the western part of the United States, systems that would attract many millions of people in the future to our national parks. Following his stint with the CCC, he joined the U.S. Navy at the start of World War II and remained overseas through most of that conflict and never returned to the family except for short visits.

I have only retained two events over the first six years of my life that included my brother. The first memory is one of us fishing in a creek that meandered along near the house my family lived in at the time, a rental house owned by a local doctor named Box, the doctor that delivered me. Located on the outskirts of Vernon, Alabama, it was referred to as the old Box place—my family moved there from my place of birth, the old home place located some five miles south of town—I was little more than a toddler at the time. If you like, you can click here to read about the monumental event of my birth, Unto you this day a child was born. It’s a well-told tale with tons of family history and well worth your time—trust me!

The other memory involves a washtub in the front yard, filled with ice and cans of beer, and my family enjoying and celebrating my brother’s visit and celebrating. It also involves a partially filled beer can left on a table within reach of a small night-shirted boy, and a set of high steps leading up to the front door of our house. The steps were necessary because the house was built on brick piers in an area prone to flooding. I have a vivid memory of standing on the top step in full view of the family gathered around the tub of beer in the front yard and tossing the contents of my stomach—whatever food I had ingested along with the warm beer I had consumed—all over the steps.

Bummer!

I lived at the old Box place with my mother and three sisters. My mother and the two older sisters worked at a garment factory in Columbus, Mississippi, a city thirty miles west of Vernon, just across the Alabama-Mississippi state line. The women walked a short distance to and from town Monday through Friday and traveled to and from their work site on a county school bus set aside for that purpose. They necessarily left at an early hour and arrived home at a late hour every evening.

I and my youngest sister, a child just 18 months older than I, were left in the care of a lady that lived within walking distance. She came to our house early each morning and waited until the women left for work before escorting my sister and me to her house—she returned us home just before the women were due to arrive from work. With her husband and a passel of kids—my mother’s term—ranging from toddlers to young adults, she lived, loved, maintained her family and helped perform the many tasks involved in farming.

Whether they were the owners or were sharecroppers will never be known, but my guess is that they farmed on shares with the owners. Today the family would be called African-American, but at that time they were called everything except that hyphenated politically correct term—my family referred to them as black folks, or blacks, or that black family—other terms were available and quite popular at the time, but none were used by my family. This was a black family that included two white children five days every week, a boy and a girl, both preschoolers, two children that shared playtime and mealtime and after-dinner naps on the front porch with the family and loved every minute of every day there.

My family left Vernon and moved to Columbus when I was five years old. My sister entered the first grade on our arrival there, and I entered the first grade the following year. That year is so filled with memories that I must reserve it for a separate posting, and I will include in this posting a third early memory of my brother Larry.

He came home for a Christmas visit from his labors under the auspices of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. That winter Columbus, Mississippi had an unusually heavy snowfall, and my brother took me on a rabbit hunt, armed only with a broomstick—just the stick, no broom. The broom part was badly worn and my brother sawed off that part. We walked a short distance from our house to a snow-covered field that served as a dumping ground for discarded items such as broken furniture, mattresses, wire-coil bed springs, old stoves and other such refuse. Yes, we lived on the south side of the city, the part that was known as the wrong side of town, an area subjected to such dumping.

This is how one hunts rabbits after a heavy snowfall. One takes a broomstick and pounds on any pile of junk where a rabbit might choose to hide, and chases the rabbit when it leaves its cover. In a heavy snowfall rabbits can’t run, so they tend to flee by burrowing under the snow rather than jumping in and out of it. Ergo, the mighty hunter simply follows the unseen rabbit as it ripples the surface of the snow by burrowing under it, estimates the location of the rabbit’s head—not a difficult task, not even for a southerner, and strikes with the broomstick a number of times, enough time sufficient to render the animal ready for skinning, cleaning and cooking.

My brother only found one rabbit with all his pounding, and that one did exactly as expected, and brother did exactly as narrated above, but landed just one blow with the stick. The rabbit’s forward motion was stopped, and on examination was found to be very much alive, only stunned by the blow but no more blows were struck. I pleaded with my brother to not kill it, and let me take it home as a pet.

And so it was. I carried a full-grown cottontail rabbit home—I never knew whether it was male or female, but just for discussion I’ll say it was a female—perhaps I hoped for some baby rabbits. I had no way to secure her, neither inside the house or outside, and one of my older sisters suggested I make a leash and tie her to a bedpost, and using a six-year old boy’s imagination, I did as suggested.

At this point the reader should probably keep a hankie or a box of Kleenex handy.

I fashioned a leash from discarded pair of nylon stockings, those with the black seams running the length of the stockings, seams that ladies of the day were constantly adjusting to keep them straight on the backs of their legs. I knotted the stocking together, then secured one end of the leash to the cottontail’s neck and the other to a bedpost. My new-found pet could move around no farther than the length of nylon, so whatever deposits he made during the night would be restricted to a small area.

Okay, folks, here’s where you’ll need the hankie or the Kleenex. When I went to sleep my pet was warm and cuddly and full of life, but the next morning she was cold and stiff and dead, choked by the nylon that had tightened during the night with her circling around and around the bedpost.

I know, I know—I know just how you feel, but just blow your nose and wipe away your tears. It happened some 71 years ago, and I will say to you exactly what Lloyd Bridges said in the made-for-television movie Cold Sassy Tree. This is what he said in answer to his children when they learned he intended to marry his long-time office manager although his wife—their mother—had been dead less than a year. What he said was,

Well, she ain’t gonna get any deader!

And that rabbit ain’t gonna get any deader either, so dry your tears. I assure you that never again—not in all those years, not even once—have I strangled another rabbit by leaving it tied to a bedpost with a knotted pair of ladies’ nylons, nor have I ever strangled another rabbit by any other method, nor have I ever advised my children or the children of others to do such—if fact, largely because of that sad event I have strongly stressed that all should respect the value of life, both for humans and for the so-called lower orders of life.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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I downed a lion in South Africa . . .

Synopsis—A prequel to this posting:

In 1985 I traveled to Botswana under the auspices of the United States’ Department of State. At that time I was gainfully employed with the United States Customs Service, and the purpose of my travel was to represent our government and U.S. Customs in a law enforcement conference. The conference took place in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, at a complex that included a Holiday Inn, several restaurants and two Las Vegas-style casinos. Except for South Africa, every country in Africa was represented. That nation was not represented because it was not invited, ostensibly in criticism of its rule of apartheid.

This posting is intended to discuss other facets of that many-faceted trip. It is one of a series of discussions covering my travel to Botswana via New York City, England and South Africa, and my return therefrom via South Africa, Germany and New York City, and discussions on everything that occurred in between. For related postings, click on I married my barber, Sojourn to Botswana and Botswana’s urinals. My intentions are to narrate some of the details of my trip in the hope of entertaining visitors to my blogs, and perhaps even, to some small degree, educate visitors with those details. And now, on to the posting!

I downed a lion in South Africa . . .

After landing in Johannesburg, South Africa I spent several hours in the company of two agents of that nation Secret Service unit, an organization similar to our Central Intelligence Agency. I surrendered my U.S. State Department passport to an immigration officer at Johannesburg’s municipal airport. It would be returned to me on my return to Johannesburg from Botswana. I did not ask why my passport was held, nor was any reason given.

I would learn later that it was held to ensure that I came back through Johannesburg, rather than leaving Botswana for a different country. The two agents questioned me on the purpose of the conference and which countries would be represented, and questioned me on my return. I answered all their questions freely to the best of my ability, although my knowledge was rather limited. They seemed satisfied with my answers in the prebriefing as well as the debriefing following my return to Johannesburg after the conference.

We stopped at their office and I was asked to wait while they reported my arrival to their superiors, a report that was made behind closed doors and obviously without my presence. Left to my own devices I toured the hallways of the building, taking in views of the city through the windows and views of offices through open doors. In my wanderings I found restroom doors and drinking water fountains marked Whites only and Coloreds only. I also noted that in the wide hallways of the building, colored maintenance and cleaning people stepped well to one side as I neared, and made no direct eye contact, looking away or down as we met and passed.

Those obvious signs of the apartheid rule that still existed in South Africa—a system that would endure until 1994—turned my thoughts back 24 years, back from 1985 to 1961, to a time when racial segregation—our nation’s apartheid—ruled the South. In 1961 I left my assignment at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama to begin a two-year tour at Bitburg Air Base in Bitburg, Germany, a small town in Germany’s Eifel mountains (a definite subject for future postings!).

My tour of duty at Craig had been pleasant in every respect, both for me and for my family. That tour had lasted more than five years, and I was extremely reluctant to end it. However, my transfer was not an object for negotiation, not even for discussion, so I grudgingly and unwillingly accepted the new assignment. Bummer!

My newfound friends from South Africa’s Secret Service treated me with a tour of Pretoria, the capital city of the nation. Our tour of the city included a marketplace, monuments and various civic buildings. The most impressive part of the tour was the Voortrekker Monument, a massive granite structure built to honor the Voortrekkers, pioneers that left the Cape Colony in the thousands between 1835 and 1854 to explore and establish settlements. Click here for a digital tour of the monument.

We returned to Johannesburg shortly before my flight was scheduled for departure, and a suggestion was made to have a beer before the flight. I declined because the cuisine at the Holiday Inn had not been kind to my digestive system, particularly to the elimination apparatus of that system. However, under duress inflicted by their urging me to have a beer, I accepted a cold beer, attractively packaged in a can. Oddly, however, neither of my friends ordered a beer, explaining that they could not drink while on duty.

I noticed that they watched me intently while I downed the beer, rather quickly because boarding time was near. When I finished the beer, they both smiled broadly and told me that on my return to the States I could truthfully claim that I downed a lion in Africa. A quick glance at the can’s label confirmed the fact that I had indeed accomplished such an unlikely feat—pictured on the can’s label was a male lion with a huge mane and an open mouth featuring large fangs, obviously a roaring lion.

I made it safely home with the empty Lion beer can, and it became the nucleus for a rather extensive collection of beer cans. Several years later  while converting our garage into a rec room, I bagged the cans into several black plastic trash bags, set them into a corner. The bags occupied that space for  a considerable length of time, right up to the time my wife tossed them out with the other trash. She apologized profusely and claims to this day that it was an accident, absolutely unintentional, but I have some doubts. The cans must have clanged and rattled a bit en route to the trash, a sign that the bags contained something other than routine trash. Oh, well, easy come, easy go, right? Bummer!

I downed a lion in South Africa—I no longer have the evidence to prove it but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!



 

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My brief stint as a cocktail waiter . . .

I returned to the United States in February of 1952 following a twenty-two month tour of the Far East. I enjoyed the first nine months in Japan—the other 13 months were spent, with far less enjoyment, in South Korea at the height of the Korean conflict. At the conclusion of a two-week boat ride on a US Navy troop transport ship that finally docked in San Francisco (click here for a description of that landing and numerous other fascinating vignettes), I traveled to Midland, Texas to visit my mother and my stepfather now residing in that city—my mother was employed as a nurse and my stepfather hawked commercial advertisement items such as matchbooks, calendars and other items imprinted with the names of various businesses. He did a very small amount of that, and a large amount of poker playing at a local establishment—he viewed himself as a high-roller, but I doubt that any others viewed him in that light.

Papa John, my stepfather, was a dues-paying member of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles (F.O.E). He was a rather committed poker player, and the F.O.E. made it possible for him to indulge in such activities regularly—nightly, and often till well past the witching hour. According to my mother, he spent almost as much time there as he spent at home. I did not linger in Midland long enough to either doubt or refute that, but I have reason to believe her.

I had just returned from a combat tour in Korea. My stepfather was inordinately proud of me for having contributed to our efforts in the war against communism and the invasion of South Korea by North Korean army regulars and elements of communist China’s enormous armies. He discussed my return with an F.O.E. personage, one that sported the title of Grand PooBah, or something on that order. They agreed, in my absence, mind you, that it would be beneficial to the organization and its members for me to bring them up to date on the progress of the Korean war.

I reluctantly accepted the invitation to speak, and Papa John insisted that I appear on stage in uniform. I appeared in uniform on stage and addressed a large banquet hall filled with comfortably seated people. I struggled through an impromptu no-notes speech, a speech that I will not attempt to recreate here. Suffice it to say that I received a warm welcome and a warmer round of applause. Texans, and Midlanders especially, possess and display many different characteristics, not the least of which is patriotism—it’s embedded in their characters and they give voice to it proudly and openly. I probably would have received the same applause had I stood and recited Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as . . . etc., etc.

Now on to my brief—very brief—stint as a cocktail waiter:

On the same evening shortly after I gave the club  members my version of the Korean War, Papa John retired to the back room to play poker. I went with him and stood around kibitzing—however, I did not attempt to give unwanted advice, something that kibitzers usually do—no, and not just no, but hell no—I knew better than to even contemplate it. As the game progressed, its seven players quickly drained their various bottles and glasses of various types of spirits, and the house called for another round of drinks for the players. Note: the house is the non-player that runs the game and takes a percentage of each pot for the organization—hey, they have to pay rent!

When the house started to send for a waiter, Papa John volunteered me for the job. The house said sure, and I silently said—well, what I said matched what the house said, but only in the number of letters—its pronunciation was different. I will try to finish this quickly because to linger will just bring up more unhappy memories of that evening.

I took the written list of drinks to the bar. The bartender obligingly filled the order, placed numerous containers on a very large tray and said There you go. The tray held more than seven containers, because some players had ordered such drinks as boiler-makers—that’s a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser—or is it a shot of beer with a whiskey chaser? I can never remember which.

As I threaded my way between tables and booths en route to the back room, with the tray held firmly in both hands at waist level, I noticed that other waiters held their trays well above their heads, with just one hand supporting the tray at that height with its expensive cargo.

Yep, you’re way ahead of me. That posed a challenge for me, one that my character could not resist—I splayed my right hand and placed it palm up beneath my tray and elevated it, just as the others were doing. I found it quite easy to do, and actually danced around and twitched my hips a bit while transiting the room full of diners and drinkers, and arrived at the poker table with out incident. However, at the exact moment I began to lower the tray, things went awry—something slipped and caused a complete dump of the trays’ load—I managed to hold on to the tray, but everything on it hit the floor with a combined sound of liquid sloshing and glass breaking. Bummer!

I was not allowed to pay for the lost lubricants, nor was I allowed to fill a second order. I rendered my I’m sorries, my thank yous and my good nights shortly after the incident and managed to exit the building without running into anything or tripping over something.

That’s it. That’s my version of The Night That a Teenage War Veteran Dropped the Drinks, a tale of tragedy comparable to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a notable work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that also involved a tremendous amount of liquid. The main event of that night is a tale that is probably still being told to younger generations of Midlanders, especially those that may be groomed for employment as a waiter at the local Fraternal Order of Eagles. I can’t vouch for that, because I put Midland in my rear view mirror several days later and have never returned.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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