Time Well Wasted

I was on a solitary ramble down one of my favorite dirt roads when I saw Leon Boone fishing in a ditch.  It’s not unusual to see folks fishing from a bridge across a small swamp or creek but Leon was fishing in a ditch: a water channel only about three feet wide and four feet deep at the deepest part.  It ran from Bogue Swamp and down through a culvert under the old dirt road.

I had not seen Leon in quite a while.  We had grown up in the same community and he lived not far from me but our paths never seemed to cross.  But since we knew each other I knew he wouldn’t think it strange if I stopped to visit with him out in the edge of the swamp.

After I pulled my old pickup over to the side of the road, I started walking down to where Leon was perched on a white plastic bucket turned upside down.  He was far enough off the road that the shade from the cypress trees gave him some respite from the hot summer sun.

As I walked up he said, “Hey, William”. (People who have known me since childhood still call me William.)

“Hey, Leon.  Haven’t seen you in a while.  Whatcha doin’?”

“Drownin’ worms”, he replied.

“Not many fish, huh?”

“Nope. But I don’t expect to catch any outta this ditch anyhow.”

“Whatcha doin’ out here with a fishin’ pole then?”

“Wastin’ time,” he said. “There’s a cold Mountain Dew in that ice chest over there. Getcha one of ’em and have a seat on that stump.”

I did as I was instructed.  After I had struggled to get my long, lanky and aging frame situated on the stump, I realized how quiet the swamp was.  The moss hanging on the cypress limbs barely moved in the easy breeze.  Somewhere in the distance I could hear birds chirping.  The water in the ditch was so slow-moving it didn’t make a sound. The sweet, delicate smell of the bay bushes mingled with the sour smell of swamp water and mud.

As if reading my mind, Leon said, “Peaceful out here, ain’t it?”

“Yep, I kinda like this,” I answered.

“Me too.  That’s the real reason I come out here.  Don’t nobody hardly ever come by and I can just forget ’bout all the bad stuff and just think the good without any interruption.”

I sensed that I was one of those interruptions so I started to get up from the stump.  “Well, I just thought I’d stop and see you a minute…”

“Aw, sit down, son.  You ain’t no interruption.  Just sit on that stump a while. Sometimes it’s sharing good times that makes ’em good times.  Don’t say nothin’; just listen to the Lord’s creation.

So I tried to “listen to the Lord’s creation”.  What I heard was the silence.  In that silence I began to think like Leon had said he did when he came out to ostensibly fish in the ditch.  I began to “think all the good stuff”. I thought about how lucky I was to have had so much good in my life and so little bad.  I thought about all the opportunities I had had to do so many things, meet so many people, see so many places.  Then I thought, “How lucky am I to be able to come to a place like this, to renew acquaintances with an old friend, to find a spot more therapeutic than any session in a psychiatrist’s office”.

My reverie was shortened as Leon rose from his seat on the bucket and began to gather himself and his fishing equipment to leave.  As he did so I noted, “You didn’t even have a worm on that hook!  How’d you expect to catch anything?”

Leon laughed as he said, “Oh, I didn’t expect to catch nothin’. I just needed to give myself an excuse to come down here.  Now, if you really want to catch fish, come on down to the lake with me tomorrow and we’ll do some real fishin’.  I’ll come pick you up at your house ‘but dusk dark or mornin’ light, whichever you want.”

I thanked him for the offer but said I wasn’t much of a fisherman.

Then you come back down here and fish anytime”, he said as he laughed and waved goodbye.

As I got back in my truck, I thought that my afternoon, non-fishing experience had been time well-wasted.


The Little Piano Player

Several years ago when I was in the television business, I was asked to be the emcee for a talent show held in a small eastern North Carolina town.  The proceeds from the show were to go to benefit the local fire department.  Appropriately, the show was held at the fire department where a large flat-bed trailer had been drawn up to use as a stage.

It was a warm autumn afternoon as I surveyed the list of entries that the chairman had given me.   There was a wide variety of talent ranging from a yodeler to an opera singer.  It looked like it would be an interesting show.

The first contestant was a little girl dressed to look like Shirley Temple.  I don’t know how many of the young folks in attendance knew who Shirley Temple was but I’m sure the little girl’s mama knew and that’s what counted.  After an excellent rendition of “The Good Ship Lollipop”, we had a fellow whistle his arrangement of “Listen to the Mockingbird”  followed by a lady of operatic aspirations singing  “How Great Thou Art” as her husband accompanied her on the saw.  (Just so you’ll know, the hand saw is played by placing it between the knees of the player and stroked with a violin bow.  — the saw not the knees.)

Then a little girl whose name was Reba came out to play the piano.  As the firemen- stage crew rolled the old heavy, upright piano out onto the truck-bed stage, the little  girl stood nervously waiting for me to introduce her.  She was probably ten years old.  She wore a frilly white dress with white patent leather shoes.  Her red hair had been curled so tightly that she looked she was wearing a shower cap with bumps on it.  She sat down to play “Moonlight Sonata”.  She played a few hesitant notes then stopped and began to cry.  The audience was silent, evidently feeling sorry for the little girl. I started to ask for applause and help her off stage when a gentleman came from backstage and sat down on the piano bench beside the little girl.  I don’t know what he said to her but she began to play the piano again.  She again began tentatively but grew more confident and the gentleman would whisper to her as she played.  She finished the piece to great applause, curtsied to the audience, took the gentleman’s hand and left the stage.

Now, if this story had a Hollywood ending, the little girl would have won the contest. But she didn’t.  A young man who played his fiddle arrangement of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” won.

I left the little town that afternoon and hadn’t heard from anyone there until the other day when I attended a wedding at a little country church near Wallace.  The church was full and I got there a little late.  As soon as I saw the minister, I thought he looked familier.  At the reception, I talked to him and found out that he was the gentleman who had helped the little girl at the talent contest.  I asked him what had become of the little girl.  He told me she was his granddaughter and he had been her piano teacher.   She had been the organist for the wedding.

The girl had already left so I didn’t get to talk to her.  But as I recalled that afternoon so long ago and the scared little girl, I thought the fiddler might have won the contest but the little piano player won our hearts.




A Family of Faded Photographs

Flea markets seem to be really popular nowadays.  There are large ones, small ones, simple ones, and fancy ones.   Not being an expert on this form of retail business, I have a hard time telling the difference between a small flea market and a big yard sale.  Both of them have items of relative interest only to those who have some particular use for the items even if it’s just for resale.  I guess yard sales are the more personal of the two.

That’s why I was surprised to see a photograph album at a large flea market down near Myrtle Beach. There were no empty pages, only page after page of pictures of what appeared to be a family.  The pictures had all turned that light tan, sepia color that tells you that the pictures were taken a long time ago.  Of course, just looking at the images in the pictures, the people and buildings and automobiles, etc, you could tell that a lot of yesterdays had passed since they were taken.

Since the album was such a personal item, what would have caused a person to discard such a thing?  After all, we are all a part of our families and throwing away or selling something that is a kind of record of that family is like disposing of a part of our selves.

Judging from the model of the cars and the way folks were dressed in the photos, I guessed that the album covered about thirty years of that family’s life. There were scenes much like those that we see in every family album:  women (probably mothers) holding up little infants wrapped in blankets, boys and girls lined up as if for inspection in their finest Sunday (probably Easter) clothes and a group shot of what appears to be about four female generations sitting around a picnic table.

I wondered about the stories that went with those pictures.  There was one of a young man dressed in a Navy uniform.  He had one foot on the running board (remember those) of a car.  He had one arm resting on the open window of the car and the other wrapped posessively around a young lady.  I wondered how many similar pictures had been taken over the years of young military men home for a visit and how many of them never came back home again for another picture.

There were several pictures of young people in caps and gowns, some posing for the photograph and some receiving a diploma.   I wondered what they did with their lives after they graduated from school.  How many of them were successful?  How many struggled and failed?

Wedding pictures took up a large part of the album.  Some photographs were of large wedding parties standing together inside a church.  There were smiling pictures of the bride and groom eating cake and one of a bride throwing her bouquet and another of the bride and groom running through a shower of rice.  I wondered how many of them were still married.  How many children did they have?

As I looked through that album, I realized that it could belong to almost any family.  The pictures I saw were much like photos in every household in the country.  Those photos depicted those places and occasions that make up family life in families like yours and mine.  Those images recorded passing moments that, sewn together, created a tapestry of human existence.

So why had that album be discarded?  Why would anybody not want to keep those images, to not have some tangible recollection of who they are?

I asked the lady who was tending the stall how she happened to have the album for sale.  She said it came as part of an estate sale for a lady in Greensboro who had died and had no relatives.

Here was a record of a family that exists now only in faded photographs.

Thinking About Chickens

For some reason I was just thinking about chickens. Chickens are not usually at the top of my list of concerns but the fact that I recently thought about them says something about my confused life here lately. But even in less weird times, I think chickens are interesting.

The chicken has historically caused humans to consider the basic philosophy of life. A frequently asked question by those who seek to find the real meaning of life is, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” This has become such a trite question that we sometimes don’t take all the implications of the inquiry seriously.

Once we approach the question, some considerations come to mind. Does fried chicken taste the same to everybody? How would we ever make that determination? Given the difference in every element of our human makeup, we have to assume that our taste buds have their own personality. But since the taste of chicken seems to be universal ( and attributed to any otherwise un-identifiable taste), we have to assume that there is some similarity in the way our taste buds communicate to our brain the actual, real, essential, and elemental taste of fried chicken. To tell you the truth, I don’t really think about it that much when I’m eating fried chicken.

I have always had occasion to note the newsworthiness of chickens. Many years ago I read about some chicken growers—in Georgia, I believe—who had been disgruntled at the low price they were getting for their chickens. As protest, they planned to parachute a large number of live chickens onto the headquarters of the company that was proposing such low prices: a symbolic “flooding of the market” by air. The article noted that, fortunately, the plan was abandoned as being inhumane.

I was reading an account of the development and continuing importance of community journalism in this country. An illustration of the type of articles that were featured in local papers in the early part of the twentieth century included an article and photograph of a woman displaying an egg and a sweet potato—both the egg and the potato extremely elongated. The caption read, “Last week Mrs. —– visited the newspaper office with an extra large hen egg, which later proved to have a double yolk and an unusually long sweet potato”. Not only was the newspaper dutifully covering local phenomena but the sentence structure added to the uniqueness of the egg.

As much as I like chickens and admire their individuality, I would find it hard to get personally attached to a chicken. I would particularly find it hard to give a chicken a name. However, a long-time friend of mine (I didn’t say an “old friend” for fear of chastisement.), Suzi Wallace Fire in Denton, NC, does occasionally name a chicken so that they (the chicken) will respond when called. I understand that someone else in the area named their rooster “Festus” because one leg was stiff. The rooster’s leg, that is. “Here, chick-chick,” is about as good as I can do.

As I write all this about chickens, I am reminded of a statement my son made several years ago about some of my newspaper columns: “Dad, you got way too much time on your hands”.

Singing ‘Bout Home

I previously said that there were two “most” memorable moments in my professional career.  Both that I recalled had to do with music, however; as Claudia noted, getting my first check for something I wrote was a big deal, too.

Unfortunately, the passage of time has dimmed the details of my second pinnacle performance having to do with music.  The event itself still rings, however.  Again, it was in the late 1970s when I attended a conference of the Institute of Outdoor Drama in Canyon, Texas.  The meeting itself may have been in Amarillo but the part of the meeting I remember most took place in Palo Duro Canyon on the evening before the meeting ended.

We went to the site of the outdoor musical drama, Texas, which was performed on a stage constructed on the floor of the magnificent canyon. The play’s season was over for that year but the Texas Symphony Orchestra was to perform at the theater for the conference that night.

Paul Green, the noted North Carolinian who had written The Lost Colony among other works, wrote the original Texas play.   So at some point during the conference there was talk of the connection of Paul Green and so many other outdoor dramas around the country.  It was suggested that maybe we (the attendees) should do something to demonstrate that connection that night at the orchestra performance.  After some informal discussion it was determined that “Carolina in the Morning” would be an appropriate song to sing to demonstrate the connection and the North Carolina delegation would perform it… sans rehearsal with the orchestra.

On the bus ride out to the canyon site some members, professionals to the core, felt uncomfortable singing without any rehearsal.  The result of all that reluctance was that I was appointed to “lead” the group in the singing.  What actually happened was that normally outgoing, extroverted actors and actresses, stopped singing after the first few bars of “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning….”and I finished the song by myself.  Just me and the Texas Symphony Orchestra.

It was almost dusk and the setting sun had created a beautiful light around the rim of the canyon.  A clear blue sky covered it. A crisp breeze gave a slight chill to the air.  And in the midst of that setting, so many miles from Hallsboro, North Carolina, I sang of home with the beautiful accompaniment of a great orchestra.

Miss Annie Elkins, my high school chorus teacher, would have been proud.

First of Two Memorable Events

In the course of writing a review of my new novel, Celia Whitfield’s Boy, Ben Steelman of the Wilmington Star News mentioned that I have “worn many hats in a long and varied career.”  I was sitting at lunch with a friend of mine who was reading that article and she asked me “What was the most memorable event in your long and varied career?”

I told her I’d have get back to her on that because there have been so many memorable events in my life that I would really have to think hard to come up with one “ most memorable”   I assumed the question had to do with my professional career rather than personal.  Certainly, the birth of my children and sharing in their lives would have to rank right at the top of everything.

But if I shift down to my professional life, picking the most memorable event is really tough.   There are so many small events that led to much bigger ones that it’s hard to attach the proper level of impact. I have been fortunate to have been a part of so many celebrations and festivals, met and interviewed all kinds of people (famous, infamous, and practically unknown).   I have sung for all kinds of audiences: large, small, and “imaginary”.  ( The imaginary audience is  a story for another day.)

So after much consideration I concluded that there were two equally memorable occasions.  Both had to do with singing before a large audience of people from around the world.

I don’t remember the exact date but it was sometime in the late 1970s, I believe, when I was asked to sing for the Ladies Luncheon for the Optimist International Convention Center in Charlotte.  I don’t remember how many ladies were there but the hall was full so there were over a thousand.  Susan Griffin, (now Susan Griffin Fisher), a former Miss North Carolina and a friend of mine was also singing for the occasion.

I believe I sang a couple of songs then Susan sang some before we closed the show with a duet performance of “The American Trilogy”.  For those of you who may not be familiar with that song, it’s a medley of “Dixie”,  “Hush, Little Baby”, “and the Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  I started with “I wish I was in the land of cotton”… and I saw a few ladies rise from their chairs and stand at attention.  Then Susan began singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” and the rest of the audience began to stand and as we sang the reprise together the audience sang with us.  That whole convention center was filled with “His truth is marching on, His truth is marching on!”  A thousand women’s voices and one very fortunate man proclaiming unity and patriotism in downtown Charlotte.

Yes, that was one of the most memorable events in my life.

Fried Chicken (and other stuff) Is Bad For You

I just read a newspaper article that reported on a survey that concluded that eating traditional Southern food was bad for your health.  Specifically, it said it leads to a higher risk of stroke.  This was all part of a large-scale effort to look at stroke and a diet of fried chicken, fish, ham, bacon and sweet tea.

I’m probably gonna have a stroke.

I don’t really doubt the accuracy of the survey. Through the years my doctors have been telling me the same thing and I give them a lot more credibility than the conductor of this survey.  First of all, it was done in California, the geographical origin of every weird diet ever conceived.  Secondly, my doctors eat the same thing I do, more or less.  The key word there is less.  Eating too much of anything is bad for you.

The study was done by a nutritional epidemiologist.  I’ll save you the trouble of looking that up like I did.  A nutritional epidemiologist is someone who specializes in the study of nutrition in particular populations— such as Southerners.  I have to assume this study involved more than just Southerners who live in California else it would be a skewed study to start with.  A Southerner who moves to California on his own accord probably has other problems as well.

The survey concluded that, “People who ate Southern food six times a week had a 41% higher risk of stroke, compared with people who ate such food once a month.”  We are supposed to eat 21 meals a week or about 81 meals a month.  What Southerner eats one piece of fried chicken, one piece of fish, one piece of ham, one slice of bacon and one glass of iced tea only one time in 81 meals?  Nobody.

I think I’ll take my chances.

A General Store for Almost Everything

For those who don’t know, Pierce and Company is a store in my home town of Hallsboro, North Carolina.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 19th century and still has a wide variety of items for sale, from hardware to toys to screws to garden tools to lumber to groceries— and the best custom meat market to be found anywhere.

If I could see through the woods, the store would be in sight of my house.  Since it is so convenient, I often go there to get just one item at a time.  So yesterday I went there to get some hamburger meat.  I drove around to the back of the store to park next to a warehouse.  There is a front door to the store but it is usually locked and the main entrance is a solid metal door on the side.

As I got out of my car I noticed two boys sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck parked near the warehouse.  One appeared to be about fifteen years old and the other was younger.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if one of them had not been blowing on a harmonica.  I say blowing rather than “playing” because the sound coming from the musical instrument was not close to music.

I like all kinds of music and I was glad to see that this young man was apparently trying to learn to make music with the harmonica.  So I walked over to them and asked, “Y’all from around here?”

“Yep,” was the reply from the older one, the one not blowing on the harmonica.

“Just learning to play the harmonica?” I asked the instrumentalist.

“I cain’t really play it,” he said.  “It’s my brother’s,” he indicated with a nod toward his older sibling.

“Can you play it?” I asked the other boy.

“Nope.  Cain’t neither one of us play it.  We seen this man playin’ it on Hee Haw back before Christmas and told Daddy we wanted one so he got it for Christmas.” (Hee Haw is an old television show now in reruns on RFD-TV.)

“You think you might want to play the harmonica on television?” I continued.

“Naw,” answered the older boy. “Hee Haw ain’t on no more.”

“You just like the music, huh?” I asked.

As the younger boy answered, he handed the harmonica to this brother, “Not really.  Jeremy (the older brother) said if we got to where we could play it good, girls’d get up around us like they did that fella on Hee Haw.”

“You think that’ll work?” I asked the older brother.

“Oh, yeah.  But we gonna have to go somewhere ‘sides Pierce and Company.”

You can get a lot of things at Pierce and Company but girls are not on the list.

Same Old Same Old

I just found an old column that I wrote back in 1980 for The News Reporter in Whiteville.  As I read it (actually re-read it since I had read it originally when I wrote it) I realized that things had not changed a lot for me or our life in general since I wrote the piece.  President Reagan had just been elected President of the United States and I was looking to the future.  Here’s what I said in 1980 and some new comments.

I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, but since last year was such a mess (See the similarity.) I feel the necessity of make every effort to see that the same things don’t happen again.  So, keeping in mind I only make promises with loopholes, here are my promises for 1980.

  1. I will do whatever is legally necessary to make a lot of money. (A failed resolution then and ever since.)
  2. I will not be a chauvinist in the presence of a lady.
  3. I promise to accept all the promises made by the timeshare sales people but never by one. (Some how that worked out to be true.)
  4. I will speak kindly of Senator Helms if he will speak kindly of me. (Neither ever occurred.)
  5. Did I say I would do whatever was necessary to make money?
  6. I will not “do lunch” with any media people who are not on expense account. (I was working in television at the time.)
  7. I will not fly on jet planes built before 1960 (update that to 2000)…flown by pilots over twenty-six years old but not older than fifty…planes must be constructed to specifications by MIT graduates with IQs in excess of 150… and I will only fly between cities that can be reached in two days by camel ride.
  8. I will not accept any collect obscene phone calls… on Tuesdays.
  9. I will cut down on my intake of junk food… except Twinkies and Moon Pies. (The Twinkies situation has pretty much been taken care of.)
  10. I will make a lot of money. (A redundant failure.)
  11. I will start going to aerobic exercise classes. (Not realistic then or now.)
  12. I will go into a business partnership with a conglomerate of wealthy businessmen of proven ability and integrity whose faith in my talents will cause them to award me an ample monetary compensation for my contribution to the ultimate success of our venture. (Didn’t even come close.)
  13. Failing that, I will try to make a little money.

Some things just never change.

Reflecting Culinary Heritage

I have mentioned many times my wife’s culinary expertise but I have never commented on my own ability to come up with anything fit to eat.  I am not a cook.  I can, if all other resources cease to exist, fix eggs in various ordinary ways: scrabbled, fried, or boiled (no omelets or anything fancy like that).  I can cook most things that can be cooked in a frying pan: bacon, bologna, sausage…humm… come to think of it, that’s about it.

Sandwiches are really a great testing ground for food research on my part.  I have found that almost any food placed between two slices of bread constitutes a sandwich.  I have probably pushed the limits of that assumption from time to time not so much from the ingredients themselves but the combinations of ingredients.   Some other folks share my fondness for peanut butter with just about anything:  jelly, of course, then with bananas, or mayonnaise and raisins. Not all together, just individually with peanut butter.

I like raw bologna  sandwiches (maybe with cheese),  all kinds of meats like chicken, steak, roast beef, barbecue, sliced roast pork, fried pork chops, any kind of fish (without the bones)

Probably one of my favorite sandwiches is cold turkey.  Usually after a holiday meal at our house there is an ample supply of left-over turkey to satisfy my love of that particular sandwich.  However, this past Christmas we suffered a lack of left-over turkey. As our family has grown it has become more and more common for us to eat at somebody else’s house for holiday meals.  Such was the case this year with the result that the week after Christmas we discovered there was no left-over turkey.

Some times you just do what you have to do.  So with no left-over turkey at our house we went to the store and bought one, brought it home and baked it, put it in the refrigerator and had cold turkey sandwiches for about two weeks.  You might say it took us a long time to go cold turkey.

Fortunately, I am the “Mikey” at any dinner table.  I like all kinds of food. I also have had the opportunity to eat not only excellent home-cooked food but over the years I have eaten at many, many dinner meeting (sometimes erroneously listed as “banquets”) that featured a wide variety of foods.  Most have been excellent.  Some not so excellent.  Many have included barbeque in some form.  This includes pig-pickin’s, eastern, Lexington, and western style servings in places as diverse as country club dining rooms and old tobacco barn sheds. I have eaten enough cold ham and potato salad to have saved Napoleon’s army on their retreat from Russia.  And it was all good and I appreciate the opportunity to share those meals with so many great people.

Now I have finally come up with an original edible, uniquely my own, suited to not only my palate but my heritage and my lifestyle.

A friend of mine who has a local winery that produces North Carolina wine, specifically, muscadine, gave me a jar of muscadine pepper jelly the other day.  I figured it would be good on a cracker with my afternoon beverage.  I began my search for the proper cracker in the kitchen cabinet and wound up with a saltine cracker (a favorite from my youth).  Then I went to Pierce and Company and bought a pound of liver pudding and a slice of hoop cheese.

I then put a very thin slice of the cheese on the saltine cracker, spread a small amount of liver pudding (called “Carolina pate’ if you take it out of the casing) then a small dollop of the muscadine pepper jelly on top of it all.  It was absolutely delicious. I ate each one of my creations as soon as I made them because I couldn’t wait to accumulate them on a plate.  I made a meal out of it.

I called it a “Country Canapé'”, my contribution to the culinary arts.  Not only did it taste good but it reflected my country upbringing and it used products produced right here in North Carolina. We might serve it at the next garden party or family reunion. Or I might send some to Paula Dean.