A View From Above

July 22, 2022 – If you’re looking for a getaway with intriguing scenery, you may want to consider Room 807 in Atrium’s ICU. A big window offers a splendid overlook of Macon and beyond. It’s amazing what you can see with a view from above.

To the south there’s a large smokestack, but it looks harmless so I’m hoping it’s steam. Whatever it is blends nicely with today’s cumulus clouds. Jimmy says it’s Macon Kraft. 

The plant’s unpleasant smell greeted us on every trip to Macon during childhood. Now it’s so rare I’ve almost forgotten the scent. When my cousin, Rooney Bowen, Jr., was a young boy, his father suspected him of being the source of the stench that filled their car. He narrowly escaped a spanking. 

Just across Hemlock Street is a single story building with a simple maze on one side. Its secluded center hides some peculiar metal structures. A square green block, maybe 3 feet on all sides, is accompanied by a blue ball of similar proportions and a red pyramid. The hideaway isn’t visible at street level so I’ve spent part of the morning wondering what its purpose could be.

I only have one theory that seems credible – a mental health testing facility. My guess is the initial screening is based on whether you can find the inner room without assistance. If you make it that far they ask a series of questions. 

“Which of these pieces might be used as a serving table for a picnic? If you wanted to roll something down the street which shape would work best? Do any of these items remind you of something that’s found in Egypt?” 

Answering all three questions correctly is likely rewarded with a certificate. Getting two right probably lands you in some kind of therapy. If you miss all three, there aren’t any good options. My best guess is they encourage you to run for public office.

A young lady in a pink top is jogging. She’s not fast but this isn’t a competition. That reminds me of a conversation my mother had several years ago with our son-in-law, Matt. He’s an avid runner and was training for Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. 

Mama had no idea the race draws thousands of competitors from around the globe. She innocently asked Matt, “Do you think you’ll win?” 

“No, mam,” he politely replied, which prompted her to follow up. “Then why are you running?”

 Cell towers, or something akin, must number a dozen or more. Not too many years ago tall towers were usually for television and radio stations. Now most of them are for cell phones.

I didn’t have a cell phone until I retired from the bank in 2015, unless you count a bag phone that plugged into a cigarette lighter. It was hard to imagine then that a hand-held device would come along with a zillion uses, including a few that are worthwhile. 

Several ancient buildings are distant but easily seen. One property has part of a defunct concrete block silo. Another is home to a rusty cylindrical water tower, the style that was common in my youth. There aren’t many of those left so this one is probably on the historical society’s watch list. If not, I apologize to the owners for leaking the information.   

Two churches are within a few feet of each other. One is a simple white frame building. The other is brick and very ornate, probably from the early 1900s or before. It’s amazing how people with hand tools handled construction jobs that would be challenging even today. If Jimmy is still in this room on Sunday, I hope to find both parking lots overflowing.

There are a lot of other old buildings within sight and some newer ones too. I have no idea what most of them were built for or what their purpose is now. Yet I find it interesting to look them over and wonder. There’s a story behind each one, as well as the lady in pink who gradually jogged out of sight.

Scanning hundreds of acres from that eighth floor window was captivating. Although I have no personal connection with any of it, I wanted to know more about what I was seeing.

It’s hard to imagine how God must feel as he watches over what he created and loves. Scripture says he knows each of us by name, even the ones that are hard to spell. I unexpectedly gained a somewhat better appreciation today of what an awesome God we serve. It’s amazing what you can see with a view from above.   

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A Bigger Rope

July 20, 2022 – My brother had emergency surgery last night and is in ICU Room 807 at Atrium in Macon. In the few hours I’ve been here he’s had ten people taking care of him. A team of six health professionals, including two doctors, came to develop a comprehensive plan.

The care being given is impressive enough to bolster my hope this is the beginning of better days. He’s been sick for months and has a long way to go. There’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel which we pray isn’t a train. I believe Jimmy will eventually be fine, but I’m not sure about the guy washing windows. He needs a bigger rope.

If you see me suspended on one of those contraptions, report a kidnapping. The idea of going up doesn’t bother me, but thoughts of an unplanned descent are frightening. I’m inclined to agree with the fellow who said if God intended for man to fly he would have given him wings.

That eighth-floor room is the first place I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a sky-high window washer. Before that encounter most of my knowledge came from an episode of The Three Stooges. They often flirted with danger, but at least their rig had big ropes.

I was seated in a corner, keeping quiet as Jimmy rested. A loud thud got my attention, its source unknown. I heard the noise a few more times then saw a man with a squeegee cleaning glass. His buggy had been banging the wall on the way up.  

It wasn’t until he lowered the platform I realized he was relying on two ropes which weren’t fully grown. I would not have trusted them to hold up a porch swing. My thoughts went back to that classic line in the movie JAWS. “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

The daring young man must have safely finished the job because he dropped out of sight without a scream. I had thought it best not to distract him, so I didn’t shout at him through the thick glass. As I left the hospital that afternoon the equipment was gone, except for two skinny blue and white ropes dangling from the roof. Thankfully, the sidewalk showed no evidence of a catastrophe.   

Maybe tomorrow he’ll return and we can have a short chat. I’d love to know where he finds the courage to dangle precariously in the air. I don’t know if he’s brave or crazy but wanted to ask how he could place such confidence in malnourished cords.

Trusting those skimpy ropes struck me as a bit foolish. Someone prone to bad puns might say he was putting his life on the line. But in the quietness of the ICU I started thinking about how easy it is to trust things that can unexpectedly fail. Health is a good example.

A nurse asked me if Jimmy was my father. I got a chuckle out of that and he will later, but now is not the time. Weight loss and a three week beard makes a man in a hospital bed seem older. 

That reminds me of a story Daddy told years ago about a silver-haired man sitting on a porch in the north Georgia mountains. With a long beard and leathery skin he and his unpainted shack looked like relics from a distant era. A tourist pulled over to speak, thinking he might take a picture and maybe hear some flavorful lore.

For someone with such an aged appearance he was surprisingly lively, so the traveler asked him the secret to his longevity. “Been a heavy smoker since I was kid,” he said, “and most of my corn comes from a jar. Plus I’ve always loved chasing after younger women.” 

Such an unlikely response shocked the tourist. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he politely said, “how old are you?”

The old man paused to scratch his beard and take a draw from his pipe, like he needed to do some figuring before he answered. “If I live to see my next birthday,” he finally replied, “I’ll be 39.”  

It’s easy to misplace our trust, to rely on things that can fail. Some failures have minor consequences while others are severe. Some only affect this lifetime, while others carry over to the one that follows. 

Next time there’s a matter where placing trust in the right thing is essential, where it’s critical to make a good choice, I hope I’ll remember a lesson that came from watching that fellow as he washed those windows. Sometimes we need a bigger rope.                   

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A Perfect Rainbow

Jane and I used to walk almost daily down the dirt road beside our home. We would go to the railroad tracks and back for two miles or sometimes double up for four. But summer’s heat, my brother’s health issues, and a personal bout with COVID got us off our routine. When we finally started back we were richly rewarded with a perfect rainbow.

Sunday, July 17th, was the first time we’d walked in a couple of months. After spending the day with Jimmy in a Macon hospital, I returned home for a long shower and nice supper. Sirens of the sofa then temptingly beckoned, but I fought them off and decided to take an overdue walk. I knew it was a good choice when Jane said she would join me.  

As we were about to leave around 8 pm, the sun was shining although rain was lightly falling in our front yard. Some old-timers say a sunshine and rain combination means the devil is beating his wife. This must have been a minor skirmish.

It wasn’t raining in our backyard, a peculiar and amusing circumstance, so we headed east toward the train tracks. Before we reached the halfway point, however, a shower had caught up with us. It was sprinkling hard enough that we took shelter under the lemonade stand.

In case you’re thirsty while passing through our neighborhood, you should know there’s not a real lemonade stand on Coley Crossing. It’s a small shed over an irrigation well. Our oldest grandchild, Abby, spent a lot of time with us in her early years and gave it that name. She traveled the road by stroller at first, then drove a little blue car until she could amble along.

Our early walks with Abby were at a leisurely pace. That’s how we discovered countless treasures including marbles, metal washers, and collectible rocks, some of which could be mistaken for gravel. Railroad spikes were among our most exciting finds. The best treasures don’t require any monetary value.

The lemonade stand offered an ideal spot to enjoy a magnificent rainbow. There may have been others I’ve forgotten which were just as lovely, but I’ve never seen one that long with both ends brushing the ground. If Jane and I had been fast enough we could have claimed two pots of gold. But gold may be what the devil and his wife were arguing about. 

On its north end the rainbow touched the far side of Chuck Coley’s cotton field. From there it made a huge half circle that crossed the road and ended where cotton and pine trees meet. It was probably a half mile long on the ground and well over a mile if tracing the arc.

Ten minutes or so later the drizzle faded along with the rainbow. Jane took several pictures but could only capture sections. A photo, however, even if it showed both ends, couldn’t do it justice. 

I had been working on a column titled “Coincidence” about God’s subtle guidance that is easy to overlook. The rainbow struck me as a clear example. Jimmy had been in the hospital or rehab for five weeks at the time and was having some terrible days. I thought this might be a sign of a new beginning. 

My expectations were to find him much better the next morning. It was disappointing to see he was worse. Miracles, I’m learning, don’t always follow our plans or timelines. I have no doubt it’s best I can’t predict what tomorrow holds. Jimmy’s situation didn’t suddenly improve like I hoped, but perhaps God had another purpose. Maybe the rainbow was to gently remind me of who’s in charge.

The tranquility that accompanied that picturesque setting is another instance where I can’t say if it was fortunate timing or something more. The rainbow wasn’t a signal I was getting what I’d prayed for, at least not on my terms. It’s odd, however, that on our first walk in a long time we were blessed with such a peaceful moment.

When we left home in the mist-filled sunlight, I thought about the devil beating his wife and hoped she was hitting him back. Then just down the road God amazed us with the same inspiring symbol he introduced to Noah long ago.

Whether that’s coincidence or divine intervention I don’t claim to understand. I can’t say why an unplanned walk delivered a rainbow we would have otherwise missed. Either way it’s a reminder of an essential element of faith. My confidence is not in a perfect rainbow. It’s in the perfect God who created it.     

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Bucket List – Part 2

In the original “Bucket List” column of May 2020 I mentioned the only thing that came to mind: to write something worthwhile. I was responding to a friend I had not seen in 50 years. Ever since she asked what was on my list I’ve wondered whether an almost empty bucket reflects contentment or a lack of motivation. So, I decided to see what else might warrant being added.

Something adventurous should be included, like soaring with the Space Shuttle. The only things keeping me from climbing aboard are cost and two incidents at the Macon fair.

My first bout of nausea happened on the Tilt-a-Whirl with David Dunaway. I’d ridden it before but never with that much fair food in my belly. Footlong hotdogs and candy apples don’t pair well with spinning carts. As soon as it stopped I scampered away, afraid the tattooed operator might stick me with a switchblade or a mop.  

Round two came a few years later on an excursion with the Unadilla Future Farmers of America. Robbie Moore and I boarded The Bullet, a rocket that turned us every which way but loose. When our door was unlatched I pointed to Robbie and fled the scene. Maybe I’ll skip the adventure section of my bucket list unless pickleball comes to town.        

Music might be a better fit, like singing a duet with Willie Nelson. He doesn’t need my help but would likely grin and pretend. George Strait recorded a song about the redheaded stranger’s countless duets with others. “I’d sure like to sing one with Willie,” laments George before his friend predictably joins in.

Willie already has a Dooly County connection, a joint effort with the late Larry G. Hudson of Unadilla. They were splendid on “Just Out of Reach of My Two Loving Arms.” Larry was a gifted singer, songwriter, and guitar player, an inspiration to the fledgling musicians in our rural school. He was a hometown hero long before he moved to Nashville. 

A lot of us hoped that song would take Larry to the top, but stardom remained elusive. He almost hit the big time, but some things just aren’t meant to be. Larry was four grades ahead of me and our paths rarely crossed after he graduated, but each time I saw him he had the same easy smile and affable ways. Maybe he realized a skinny kid who played piano looked up to him.   

Spiritual undertakings seem integral to a bucket list, but I’ll keep it simple and just add one – understanding God. Sometimes it frustrates me that I don’t have a better understanding of God, a lofty goal for a man who recently lost his truck in a parking garage.

We had a discussion a few years back in our men’s Sunday School class about understanding our Creator, a lesson on Job, I believe. I’ve heard sermons and read that story a few times, but it still befuzzles me why God pointed Job out to Satan, then let Satan do horrendous things to a man of exceptional righteousness. 

When I see the unfathomable tragedies and heartbreak of innocent people, I sometimes ask God why, knowing I’ll likely get the silent treatment again. Then I reflect on what Steve Sanders said that morning in Sunday School, quoting a preacher he’d heard on television. The man had asked, “What kind of a God would he be if we could understand him?” The sobering answer is he’d be just like us. There’s a lot I’m unsure of, but I know I don’t want a God just like me. 

I’ll pause my writing for now and turn up the radio. Willie is singing, “It’s Not for Me to Understand.” His personal theology may not be rock solid, but those lyrics perfectly remind me of who’s in charge and why.

The lead belongs to Willie while I’m adding some off-key harmony. I think I’ll let this impromptu session count for our duet. He doesn’t need my help, so maybe I should look for someone who does.    

Understanding God is staying on my list, but I hope it doesn’t happen soon. That kind of insight only comes after we kick the bucket. I don’t really expect to understand God on this side of heaven, but I’m blessed by knowing God understands me.

So, my bucket list remains almost empty and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Maybe I’ll add a few more goals down the road. Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to write something worthwhile, but not right now. At the moment I’m busy thinking. I’m pondering whether God is amused by a man who wants to understand him, but has a hard time finding his truck.     

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Coincidence

Some people believe there’s no such thing as coincidence. Others say that’s all there is. My thinking leans toward the middle, a combination of coincidence and divine intervention. I believe God allows us to hold the steering wheel but sometimes gives it a nudge or takes over.  

To me it’s seldom clear how to interpret specific events. That’s why I’ve embraced a comment made in our men’s Sunday School class a few years ago. Steve Sanders said, “I’ve always heard that coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.” 

There have been incidents in which I believe God anonymously intervened to rescue me from my foolishness. Sometimes it took a while to realize I had errantly attributed his quiet mercy to good luck. And sometimes I never knew. I believe his unseen hand has taken the wheel more often than I’ve understood. 

God has let me exercise free will even when it took me on paths he didn’t approve. Through it all, however, there’s evidence his mercies are new every morning. Otherwise the consequences would have been more severe. I’m sure I’ve not given him enough credit. 

A couple of recent experiences prompted me to write this column. They may seem insignificant, but felt affirming to me. Both occurred the same day and helped me realize how easy it is to overlook little moments that subtly point to God’s involvement.

On Friday, July 8th, I posted a weekly column titled, “Prevention – Part 2.” It addressed the abortion issue in what I hoped was a respectful way. I had written a previous article about abortion a year or two earlier but never published it. I don’t enjoy controversy, so I had put it aside.

After Roe vs. Wade began making headlines, I felt an ongoing tug to revisit the matter. I started fresh and tried to write something that might encourage civil dialogue about saving life rather than ending it. 

Even after submitting the article to the newspapers, I  wondered if I had done the right thing. A part of me kept questioning if I should have left the topic to others. When I posted it online uncertainty still lingered.

Whether the column accomplished what I hoped, I have no idea, but here’s what I believe is more than coincidence. After posting the article I ate breakfast then read that day’s devotional from Open Windows. The scripture was Psalms 139:1-12, but my attention was drawn to the next four verses, which I had marked almost 30 years earlier.  

That passage is where David acknowledged that God knew him before he was formed in the womb and had planned his days ahead. The next day’s scripture included those verses. Maybe I’m wrong, but I took it as God’s affirmation, perhaps not for content but at least for intent. Too many times I’ve chosen silence because it was the easier route.    

The other thing which seemed out of the ordinary that Friday involved a column I was working on titled “COVID.” I had reminisced about my late friend Jimmy Langford in the draft, but wondered if I should, since I had previously written about his untimely death.

While pondering that thought I got a text from our daughter, Carrie, checking on my brother and me. We both had COVID at the time and he was in the hospital with other health issues. Jimmy Langford was mentioned in her text, which struck me as odd. At first I thought I’d accidentally sent her something meant for my laptop, but I soon realized that wasn’t the case. I took it as a sign it was okay to write about my good friend again.

Those obviously aren’t earth shattering events, and I can’t say for sure they are anything more than coincidence. It’s possible they are simply cases of uncanny timing. I’m refreshingly convinced, however, that God’s delicate finesse sometimes disguises his involvement in my life. There’s no doubt I’m behind on giving him thanks.

My belief is we don’t have to routinely choose between coincidence or divine intervention, and that we can’t always know. I believe God in his wisdom often deems it best to include an element of uncertainty. But when we wonder about things we’re unsure of, that Sunday School comment seems an ideal approach. Steve said, “I’ve always heard that coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.” 

And I say, “Thank you God for mercies that I sometimes fail to see, for patience undeserved as you keep watch over me. Amen.” 

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Brain Fog

My July bout with COVID was not much different than many others of late. Two days of fever with a week or so of cold symptoms and low energy. After that came frequent coughing spells. Now I’m concerned about the threat of brain fog.

COVID has been linked to brain fog and can reportedly lower IQ by ten points. A ten point drop would put me close to negative territory. A recent article said it’s like aging a brain by 20 years. If I begin writing about irregularity you’ll know why.  

As a side note, you may have noticed my hair has been looking a tad shaggy. When I tested positive my barber canceled appointments plus quit giving me any sugar. I didn’t consider other options as prior experiences have not turned out well.   

Mr. Willis Owen was my barber from early childhood until Jane took over. I only remember four haircuts he didn’t give me and I regretted every one.

In the eighth grade I sneaked off to Mr. Tommy J. Brown in Unadilla. He was a family friend and fine gentleman but prone to sipping the recipe on slow days. I learned that too late.

Patsy Bridges and I were paired to serve at the annual Mother-Daughter/Father-Son Banquet. I figured a formal occasion deserved a special haircut and that’s what I got. 

Mr. Tommy was enthusiastic about his new vacuum clippers. “You don’t see any hair on the floor do you?” he asked repeatedly. He tested them down to the follicles. There was nothing left to comb, not even a remnant. On a positive note, his floor didn’t need sweeping. 

My second harrowing experience also came in Unadilla with a fellow who was passing through. A classmate had been there and came to school looking spiffier than usual. That’s why I stopped by one afternoon and got clipped.

The cash register was behind the chair I was in. He finished barbering but didn’t remove the cape. Instead he left me seated as he took my money and slowly made change. I had given him the only bill I had, a ten. When I stood to leave, the ten wasn’t on top of the drawer like Uncle Emmett had taught me at Joiner’s Store.   

I figured if he needed the money bad enough to steal from a kid he could keep it. If I could get a do-over I’d try to prod his conscience. “That’s a nice haircut,” I’d cheerfully offer. “Why don’t you keep that five for a tip.” And I’d invite him to church, but keep an eye on the offering plate.              

A third memorable haircut came at Brookwood Plaza during college. I would let my hair get as long as I thought would be tolerated for visits home every six-weeks, then I’d return to Valdosta State and add a few more inches. Sporting three months of hair and about to head to Dooly County, I walked into a barbershop and stopped at the first open chair.

“Leave it a little over the ears,” I told a balding old man who didn’t cater to hippies. He went the other way, intentionally misinterpreting over as above. It wouldn’t have mattered except Jane was still assessing my long-term potential. When I dropped by her dorm she wondered why I was wearing a cap. I could tell when she fell her dreamboat had sailed.       

Several months passed before I needed a barber. At Jane’s behest I went to a stylist and got a razor cut, shampoo, and blow-dried styling. The young lady was too cute for me to ask the price. I spent seven dollars and still didn’t look like a rock star. 

That’s when I suggested Jane become my barber. She insisted she didn’t know how to cut hair until I explained we couldn’t go to Shoney’s for Slim Jims and strawberry pie. There’s not much to manage on top now but it still grows splendidly on the sides. That’s why two thirds of my head began looking a tad shaggy when my barber took a COVID break.

I got sidetracked recounting haircuts and almost forgot the brain fog issue. A ten point drop in IQ doesn’t worry me all that much and would likely improve the column. What bothers me is knowing it could be worse, maybe in the 20 to 30 range.

If I end up on the wrong side of zero, I should probably stop writing these weekly musings. In case that happens I’ve been researching other activities that might be interesting and help pass the time. There’s one idea that has potential but it comes with a major drawback. I really don’t want to be President.          

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When Dude Stopped Barking

July 14, 2022. Dude finally stopped barking. Or maybe he’s just too far away for us to hear. I’m hoping his all-night howls earned him a spot in the canine choir. He was a baritone but had a tremendous range with two octave slides as smooth as George Jones. 

His bass voice was for growling, a menacing sound which belied his gentle nature. Occasionally he growled for no reason, offering a guttural snarl that meant as little as a campaign promise.      

When Dude moved here from California, it took a few weeks for us to understand each other. He never showed much expression, so it was hard to know what he was thinking. With a deep throaty growl, massive jaws, and a poker face I was a bit wary. Eventually, however, I saw a hint of a smile.  

Baritone was for sustained barking. He loved alerting us to delivery trucks, loud mufflers, and boom boxes, but trains and thunderstorms were his specialties. He told us when they were coming then monitored them until they crossed the county line. 

Dude’s tenor was solid but reserved for harmonizing with sirens. His distinctive whines told us whether an ambulance or deputy was heading our way. He also would indicate the direction, which sounds impressive but the only options were north or south.    

Jane achieved some limited success in training him to bark responsibly over the past six months or so. We had bought a collar but neither of us liked the idea of shocking him. Plus we didn’t want to zap him with something we hadn’t tested and Jane refused to put it on. I had another idea but found out she’s a light sleeper.

That’s why we ordered a training whistle, one that dogs can hear but humans can’t. Barney Fife once used that technique on The Andy Griffith Show, so I had confidence in the plan. I gave it a test run and couldn’t hear a thing so knew it was working.

The whistle was used sparingly as we kept cutting Dude additional slack. We made a deal that he could bark all he wanted until ten p.m. There were times he ignored the curfew, taking advantage of tender enforcement. As his days grew shorter our patience grew longer.  

On December 8, 2020, our vet had found a large mass in Dude’s abdomen plus internal bleeding. She said he might not live two weeks, that we might get up one morning and it would be over. But the bleeding stopped and the mass grew at a slow pace. 

Lately he’d changed his napping habits and was acting a bit peculiar. Rather than stretching out on the cool concrete floor or in the hole he’d dug near the back porch, he began squeezing himself between two shrubs. Maybe the pressure felt good but that’s just a guess.

Seth and Jane had a talk about Dude’s outlook. He had been taking  medicine for a long time and was about to need an exam for a refill. We all had the same question that had no clear answer. How do you know when it’s time?

No one wants a pet to suffer, but it’s hard to know where they are in that process. With Dude’s stoic nature, there was no way to tell if he was miserable or still enjoying life. He wasn’t interested in taking walks anymore, but his appetite never waned.

Some people measure their dog’s food and keep them at a precise weight where ribs can be counted. We take the other approach with an open buffet. When Dude got sick the menu was further enhanced. Besides unlimited dry food and a few table scraps, he enjoyed a big can of something sumptuous every night. A dog on a short leash shouldn’t worry about being a little pudgy or managing his cholesterol.                        

Thankfully, he died peacefully in his sleep as we had hoped. I wasn’t home when Jane found him lying motionless between the shrubs. Something about that spot must have helped him feel better. Or maybe it was his way of letting us know he would soon be moving on.

There were some frustrating nights when that aggravating rascal wouldn’t let us get a decent amount of sleep. I threatened him severely on multiple occasions, but he knew my threats were on par with his growls. 

Now there’s an emptiness and an unsettling quiet left by another good dog who stole our hearts. It was a sad day when Dude finally stopped barking, but maybe it’s not over. I’m hoping he’s just too far away for us to hear.         

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A Mighty Big Fish – Part 2

Fishermen are sometimes prone to stretch the truth, but my claim of snagging a mighty big fish in the Gulf of Mexico is no exaggeration. Captain Frank estimated the old boy weighed around 300 pounds. I would have guessed 500 but he spoke first in front of witnesses.

Four generations of our family, ages 8 to 95, spent a week at St. George Island in early June. Our youngest grandchild, Walt, loves to fish and his sister, Melanie, wanted to take a deep sea excursion. A friend of Melanie’s dates Captain Frank, a young but extremely capable guide in Apalachicola.

Our daughter, Carrie, and husband, Clay, were also aboard, plus Seth, our favorite son. Cason, another young fellow, served as deckhand. He and Frank took us on a splendid tour of a red snapper honeyhole. 

We were fishing a 100 foot bottom using heavy leads. It takes a stout fish to get your attention at that depth, and some of them are adept at stealing bait. That happened to me several times while others were filling the cooler. Once I got a belated hit, however, there was little doubt about the poundage trophy.

My thoughts went back to a 1968 fishing trip near Panama City. My parents, brother, and I were on vacation as were several others from our farming community. Jimmy and I joined Gene and Johnny Paul Deloach, J. T. Sparrow, and Larry Dunaway on Captain Mutt Wallace’s charter boat.          

Jimmy hung a pole bender that got everyone’s attention. Captain Mutt, a weathered veteran of the seas, even got excited. He expertly maneuvered his boat as Jimmy kept reeling. A half hour later he landed a nice anchor someone had lost.        

It didn’t take long to realize that whatever was on my hook had no intentions of cooperating. I reeled for a while, expecting the line to break or get bitten in two. Even with the drag set tightly the fish would pull out almost as much line as I could reel in.

Captain Frank took my rod to see if we might need a bigger boat. I think his real concern was the monster might pull me overboard, which would require tons of paperwork. He predicted I’d hooked a goliath grouper as he tussled with him for ten minutes or so. 

Cason followed Frank manning the reel, saying he’d never caught a goliath grouper and had that on his bucket list. Then Clay took over and brought him to the surface. With three assistants I only claim partial credit for the catch, but full credit for getting him to take the bait.

Just as he surfaced the big fish rolled over on his back, which made me wish I hadn’t been quite as successful. It’s illegal to keep goliath grouper so it looked like his final moments might come while floating upside down waiting for a shark to end his misery. It struck me as a sad ending for a giant with a long history. 

Frank explained the swim bladder fills with air when a fish is pulled up from the deep. It’s similar to divers getting the bends from pressure changes if they ascend too quickly. Once the fish got near the surface he was helpless as air buoyed him up.

Much to my surprise, Cason jumped in the water to have his picture made with Goliath. After he climbed up the ladder Melanie took a turn, a daring feat I applauded with considerable reluctance. Cason’s plunge provided excitement, but having a granddaughter swimming near shark bait in blue water with no life jacket was concerning. I knew if we lost Mel the fishing trip would be over.

After the photo shoot, Captain Frank used a long knife to bleed the air from the grouper, a painful procedure perhaps, but necessary to give him a fighting chance. I felt sorry for Goliath as he made weak, sporadic attempts to right himself. He seemed to be giving up, but after about 30 minutes managed to flip over and return home with a story of his own.  

It was a great outing, followed by all 13 family members enjoying fried red snapper that night. I probably won’t ever catch another fish that size and I’m not sure I want to. But there was a warm satisfaction in helping create a memory which I trust will outlast me.

Most of my fishing tales would need considerable exaggeration to impress anyone. But even those of us with no special skills sometimes get lucky. That’s what  happened to me on the Gulf of Mexico. It was a mighty big fish that came up from the deep.      

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A Mighty Big Fish

I’m an occasional fisherman with a casual approach and no special skills, but sometimes a fellow gets lucky. That’s what happened on a family vacation in early June off the shores of Apalachicola. It was a mighty big fish that came up from the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.      

My earliest memory of a family vacation is the Seahorse Motel in Jacksonville. My parents, grandmothers, brother, and I squeezed into our 1957 Chevrolet in the predawn hours. Our four-door sedan had two-tone paint with a snazzy combination of light and dark blue. The model designation, Two-Ten, was printed on the steering wheel.  

Daddy had packed the trunk with whatever luggage Mama deemed necessary for three nights and four days. Plus he took a couple of retired innertubes to use as floats. The tubes had too many patches to be roadworthy but were safe enough for kids to ride ocean waves.

The early morning departure allowed us to enjoy a couple hours of cool air coming through the rolled-down windows. Our vacations were taken during July’s heat, a slower time on the farm as crops were being laid by and nothing was ready for harvest.

Another reason we left before sunup was to have a lot of daylight once we reached our Florida destination. Traveling two-lane roads at speeds approaching 55 miles per hour could have us on the beach in time to get blistered the first afternoon. 

We switched from Jacksonville to Panama City somewhere during early childhood.  Daddy would pull into a motel and Mama would ask to see a room. They usually passed inspection, but sometimes she’d offer a few pointers to management and we’d drive on. I would have sacrificed cleanliness for swim time, but lodging was clearly my mother’s domain. 

Eventually we began staying at The Port of Call, a family owned establishment  whose owners my parents enjoyed getting to know. It was maintained well and had a seldom-used shuffleboard court. Before beginning a multi-year run there, we stayed at a variety of places, all with air conditioning sufficient to create arctic-like conditions.

Walking into a freezing room while wearing a wet bathing suit offered a pleasurable misery we could not resist. We knew the opportunity to be chilled to the bone would not come again until the next summer.      

The Bikini is the only name I recall in the pre-Port days. Perhaps I remember it because the marquis featured the silhouette of a bikini-clad woman. I only glanced a few times and kept one eye closed, which may explain why my vision today is better on the left.

Staying at The Bikini was a bit of a stretch for staunch Southern Baptists, but we’d passed several no-vacancy signs and I’d been asking, “How much farther?” for six hours. “We’ll be there before you know it,” Mama would say, then change the subject. 

One motel had a mynah bird. “Are you cold?” he’d ask repeatedly. Grandmama Hill would laughingly respond, “No, I’m not cold. Are you?” Mama Joiner took a different approach and tried to teach the bird the 23rd Psalm. He didn’t show much interest and had a rather foul attitude. She probably should have started with, “Jesus wept.”    

On one trip to Florida we stopped at a place offering free, freshly-squeezed orange juice. I had planned to fill my tank but flies in the packing shed guarding an open pitcher diminished my appetite. A small luke-warm serving in a paper cup was disappointing. That may be my first time realizing advertisements sometimes embellish the truth. I guess that’s okay because it works fine in politics.  

A glass of orange juice is how I start each day. That’s a habit I began in childhood when the lovely Anita Bryant said, “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine,” She was a delightful spokesperson for the industry until taking a stand for biblical values got her canned. 

I was almost grown before I found out Daddy was adding extra water to our frozen orange juice concentrate. We had many good laughs after discovering his secret dilution. It’s not critical with juice, but sadly we’re following a similar plan with faith these days. It’s unpopular to embrace biblical values in society, so we water them down to avoid being offensive.

Maybe we can finish my fish tale next week. I got sidetracked reminiscing about family vacations. Our trips were short but led to long-lasting memories, and now I’ve added another. What came up from the deep blue water wasn’t quite large enough to swallow Jonah, but it was a mighty big fish.   

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COVID

It took a while, but I finally joined the ranks of those with COVID. Thankfully, it came during a time when most cases don’t have severe consequences. My bout shouldn’t have any major implications, unless I pass it on to my wife.         

Lauren, a wonderful nurse practitioner in Dr. Ricky Stevens’ office, gave me a good report after a curbside checkup. As a bonus she agreed that yard work is out of the question until cool weather comes. I was glad to get a positive health assessment, especially since Willie Nelson had just reminded me of life’s uncertainty. “Live every day like it was your last one,” sang Willie, “and one day you’re gonna be right.”   

My longtime friend and neighbor, Jimmy Langford, was the first COVID casualty I heard about in Dooly County. That was early in the pandemic, before much was known about diagnosis or treatment. Jimmy’s sudden and unexpected death was a shock to his family and friends. Statistics are more sobering when they have a familiar face. Numbers aren’t as important until you start counting tears.  

I’ve written about Jimmy before, so I’ll try not to be too repetitive. We began first grade together at Pinehurst Elementary, grew up two miles apart, worshiped at the same church as adults, and lived within sight of each other when COVID took him away. 

There’s an old saying, not often heard or deserved, which perfectly describes him: “He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” For most of us that would be an exaggeration, but Jimmy personified a gentle spirit. He lived the way he was raised, to love others like Jesus loves us.

A childhood memory I’ve long cherished is of a very informal Sunday afternoon sing-along at his parents’ home. Jimmy was the youngest of five children which included some gifted singers. He never claimed to be musically inclined, but enjoyed being surrounded by those who were.

It was the summer after eighth grade, I believe, when a group of young people met at the Langford home. I was there with The Harmony Gospel Singers, five teenagers from our church plus me on piano. Elaine Mashburn and Tony Lewis were four grades ahead of me. June Prince, Diane Dunaway, and Michael Sullivan were two years my senior.   

Because I was the youngest member, Diane nicknamed me Baby. When three gorgeous young ladies called me Baby in public it was flattering. Most people realized it was said in humor, but I figured a few might assume it had romantic connotations. A skinny kid with freckles needed all the help he could get.   

We spent a couple of hours in a jam-packed den with folks gathered around the piano. It’s probably for the best that no one had a tape recorder. Time tends to enhance sweet memories which evidence sometimes brutally contradicts.

I can’t attest to the quality of the music as I really don’t remember, but the atmosphere was exceptional. Toes were tapping and hands were clapping as songs and laughter bounced off the wooden walls. A good time was had by all.    

Larry Langford, one of Jimmy’s older brothers, led the singing with contagious enthusiasm. Their sister, Brenda, played piano and some others probably did too. When Larry invited me to take a turn on the bench I was hesitant, but secretly glad the masses pushed me forward. It wasn’t like being on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Those rambling thoughts of yesterday don’t have much to do with COVID, I suppose. But when I tested positive it reminded me of an old friend who left us too soon, a man whose humble faith and good nature inspire me each time I pass his house. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body.       

COVID is still around and there’s no telling what the future holds. A lot of people think some form of it is here to stay. I have no idea where we’re headed or how we’ll get there. It may be a bumpy ride for a while and that’s concerning. But my confidence in the long term comes through knowing where I’m going when the ride is over. 

Meanwhile I’ll keep remembering JImmy’s good example and singing along with Willie on a song which ends just like it begins. “Live every day like it was your last one, and one day you’re gonna be right.”       

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