Chimney Repairs

Please don’t let the column title mislead you into relying on Joiner’s Corner for chimney repair advice. A lack of knowledge has rarely deterred me from expressing an opinion. That reminds me of something Mr. Emmett Stephens said during his senior years.

“I’ve reached an age,” he remarked, “where I intend to stop setting a bad example and start giving good advice.” I admire that approach to life but perfecting it may be beyond my grasp. If you follow my lead on chimney repairs, your dreams are liable to go up in smoke.

My recommendation for such a project is to listen to someone who knows what they’re doing, like John David Law of Pinehurst. At 89 years of age, he’s still slinging mud with no plans to stop. Bud Law is the undisputed king of mortar mountain but too humble to boast. He gets that humility from another King he faithfully serves. That’s who he credits for his exceptional health and abundant blessings. I’d trust his advice on life just as much as masonry.    

It’s best to seek expert counsel when needed. I can, however, tell you a few things about chimney repairs to avoid. Hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes, but I’m prone to repetition.

We have been working for a while now on my mother’s childhood home, slowly taking care of overdue maintenance and minor updates. Two double-sided chimneys were sealed years ago when space heaters were added. We recently reopened them to prepare for gas logs.

Opening the fireplaces took more effort than I expected, even though I have a gift for demolition. As a young boy growing up on a family farm, I demolished things that were generally considered indestructible. Nobody knows exactly how the point of an anvil got broken. A flat tire on the John Deere 4020, however, indicated I may have been involved.    

Armed with a nail puller, crowbar, and stout hammer, I gradually persuaded the three-quarter inch plywood to turn the chimney facings loose. An ample supply of glue had been used to attach them, in addition to a keg of twenty-penny nails. The glue was so potent I doubt it’s still legal.  

After getting the fireplaces open, my initial mistake was to let my hands get ahead of my head. My boss at Bank of Dooly, Luke Couch, told me several decades ago, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Planning made sense for financial matters, but I had no idea it applied to something as simple as chimney repairs.     

The first significant error came after I removed loose bricks in the floor of the den fireplace. Beneath them was red sand so fine it could have passed for dust. It looked like a perfect path for termites, an easy route to the buffet at Hole Foods. That’s why I began scooping sand into five-gallon buckets and filling potholes in the yard.   

Ten buckets or so later, I realized the sand was deep and wide and extended under the adjoining fireplace that shared the same chimney. Using dirt under a house for filler struck me as a terrible idea, but I’ve since learned it was a common practice in the 1930s. Triple layered brick walls encased the powdery sand and kept it so dry a termite would have perished trying to crawl through. I should have left it alone and sought good advice instead of grabbing a shovel.

Ken, a neighbor who is talented in many areas of construction, helped fill the void I created with cement, then laid black tile on the floor. Afterward, however, I decided to lower and seal the chimneys, a task which had to be done from inside the attic. I padded the new floor tiles with foam and cardboard, hoping that falling bricks and mortar wouldn’t crack them.  Most of the bricks, however, I lowered through a hole in the ceiling for Seth and Jane to take outside.

It would have been much easier to have knocked the bricks into the chimney and let them fall harmlessly on a bed of sand. Knocking them toward myself, rather than away, while standing on rafters in a dusty attic was a challenge. Head before hands, I’ve been reminded, is the proper sequence.    

We’ll cover some repair details next week. I don’t profess to know much about masonry, but I’ve learned a good deal lately about the importance of having a plan, even when we think we don’t need one. And I’m hoping the point in life Mr. Emmett spoke of is within reach, an age where I’ll stop setting a bad example and start giving good advice.       

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Old Bricks – Part 2

Space ran out last week after reminiscing about Granddaddy’s liniment. We’ll cover two other elements of that childhood memory today. It was the winter of 1956, I think, a few months after I turned four. Recollections of drinking water in bed and warming at the fireplace the next morning recently came to mind. Cleaning the mortar off old chimney bricks is what brought them to the surface. 

My preference for sleeping in my own bed goes back to early childhood. It’s too late for therapy, so I’ll just stay the course as it suits me fine. More than likely I spent multiple nights with my mother’s parents, but there’s only one occasion I specifically remember. In addition to homemade liniment, water and fire made lasting impressions.

Granddaddy slept on a single bed, so it seems I would have bunked with Grandmama in her double. Maybe I wanted to sleep with him and he said okay, or perhaps I crawled in without asking. It wasn’t easy for me to fall asleep during childhood. I’d toss and turn and pull the covers loose, then finally drift off after an hour or so of frustration. Restlessness can make a fellow’s mouth dry, especially when he’s away from home.

“I’m thirsty, Granddaddy,” I said. He went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water. I took a few sips while staying beneath layers of quilts in a house quickly chilling as embers turned to ash. He returned to bed, but not for long.

“I’m thirsty again, Granddaddy,” said a wide-awake kid. He walked across the cold floor to get more water. I drank a few sips and he lay down once more.

“Granddaddy,” I whispered for the third time, “I’m still thirsty.” He fetched a refill and was as pleasant as always. This time, however, he made sure my thirst was going to be quenched. “Little man,” he said with a smile, “you need to drink all the water you want so we can go to sleep.”

That memory has probably stayed with me because of hearing the story repeated many times. My grandfather was a gentle giant and glad to accommodate a restless grandchild asking for water. By the third trip to the kitchen in a frigid house, however, he was ready to call it a night.

The other thing I recall came just before dawn. We had a fireplace at home in our living room, but it was only used occasionally, mostly during the Christmas season. The rest of our house, where the living really occurred, was heated with gas space heaters.

Grandmama’s home back then was dependent on a sharp ax and four fireplaces. The main one was in a room which served as their kitchen, eating area, and den. I’ve seen enchanting fires in many settings, but the one which still glows the brightest was started and stoked by my grandfather.

Two andirons were stacked to the limit with split oak and fat lightered. The crackling pops of burning green wood and pleasing aroma of smoke lured me from a cozy bed. Flames were dancing up the chimney as the roaring fire shooed away the morning chill.  

I’m glad I came along early enough to get a glimpse of life when fireplaces were the norm. It was a wonderful feeling to rotate near the hearth trying to bake both sides evenly. It didn’t occur to me that my warmth was possible because Granddaddy had spent hours in the cold chopping wood. Hopefully I’ll remember to thank him one day, and maybe share another laugh about a kid who couldn’t sleep. 

As I was cleaning the mortar off those old chimney bricks, my first thought was the job might be a tad monotonous. But when I started listening to the stories they had to tell, a mundane task took me down a path of sweet reflections. I almost wished there were more bricks in the pile.  

A short walkway at the back door is now an imperfect entry that takes me back to a rather perfect night. In those old bricks I smell the liniment Granddaddy was rubbing on his scarred legs and I’m thankful he no longer needs it. I see the kind-hearted man who left a cozy bed three times to get his grandson some water. And I hear the crackle of a fire that warmed a kid’s body and now warms his soul.

Solid bricks of old chimneys are what I love, their reddish-orange colors softly shaded with the soot of a thousand fires. If we listen quietly as the mortar is chipped away, old bricks have a lot of stories to tell.         

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Old Bricks

Old bricks have a comforting mystique not found in their younger siblings. Tarnished colors and time-worn textures cause me to ponder what stories they might have to tell. The ones I find most compelling are the solid bricks of yesterday’s chimneys, their faded reds and oranges lightly shaded with soot. Those are the bricks I’ve been listening to lately.

During the summer of 2021 our family began doing some overdue maintenance and light restoration of my mother’s childhood home. My grandparents, Alger Benjamin Hill and Carrie Mae Bembry Holland Hill, lived there when I was growing up. The distance between our homes was only five miles so we visited often, a blessing I took for granted back then.  

Grandmama’s house wasn’t fancy and won’t be when we’re finished. Its welcoming simplicity no doubt helped spawn some rather magical moments of childhood. I still marvel that a small dwelling was able to accommodate dozens of family members. Splendid dinners with jovial kinfolks who loved being together is what I remember most fondly. If laughter could have shattered glass, Grandmama’s windows would have been paneless.   

Two double-sided chimneys were lowered years ago just enough to fit under a new metal roof. Granddaddy’s ax had been retired much earlier when the fireplaces were sealed and space heaters placed on the hearths. In April I took about three more feet off the chimney tops from inside the attic, preparing the fireplaces for gas logs.

My earliest memory of Grandmama’s home is when I was around four. Granddaddy was still chopping wood every winter back then and kept an ample supply in the back yard. I didn’t spend many nights with them or anywhere else as a kid, preferring my own bed as I still do. One overnight visit, however, has stayed with me for three reasons: liniment, water, and fire.

Separate beds in the same room is how my grandparents slept, her on a double and him on a single with what must have been hardy slats. He was a big man, six feet two and well over two hundred pounds with large bones and strong calloused hands. It was all that little bed could handle.       

Granddaddy’s legs were scarred from countless skirmishes with uncooperative livestock. He and his heavy-duty walking stick could be persuasive, but he took some hard licks along the way. At night he’d rub homemade liniment on his battered shins. The main ingredient was kerosene, I think, but that may be a guess I made long ago and decided to believe.     

As a child I thought liniment took Granddaddy’s pain away. I realized later it was only a distraction, something to get his mind off what was hurting. The same is true of most bottled remedies, or maybe all of them. Temporary numbness can be found in a glass but never a cure that will last.          

In World War I Granddaddy was given an Army uniform and free passage to France by Uncle Sam. He was among a small group of survivors who were gassed in a trench while fighting the Germans. That’s all I know except Mama said he got a small pension because of the gassing. 

He died in 1964 when I was eleven. It had never crossed my mind to ask him about war or anything else of consequence. Maybe he wouldn’t have talked about it, but probably would have been glad someone was interested. Ill-tempered bulls and stubborn mules left multiple scars we could see, but unseen marks sometimes hurt the worse. He probably came home from France with plenty of those.

We’ll talk about water and fire next week, Lord willing. There’s nothing spectacular about either recollection. They’re just two little memories special to me because they survived while others died.

I’ve been chipping the mortar off those old chimney bricks this spring. One day when the weather was especially nice, I spent all morning and most of the afternoon cleaning them up. No one was with me, but I didn’t feel alone. Bricks, I’ve learned, are more willing to reveal the past when it’s quiet.

These old bricks have been through the fire, so I figure they deserve to be heard. I’ll keep listening for a while, hoping they have a few more stories to tell.  

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Digging Up Stones

Digging Up Stones struck me as a rock-solid heading for a column on archeology. Today we’ll lightly excavate a little known but valuable resource in that field. I’m clueless in such matters, but the Ocmulgee Archeological Society has capable folks who will gladly assist the unlearned. That’s assuming, of course, the motivation for uncovering the past is honorable. 

Harold Gray, a friend from Unadilla High School days, invited me to attend a meeting of the OAS. The two of us have had little contact since my 1970 graduation. He was a kid when I left town, a whole grade behind me. It was a shock to find out we’re now the same age.   

Three things stand out in my memories of the lean, red-headed youngster of yesteryear. He was smart, well-mannered, and could run all day long.

“You still do any running?” I asked. My expectation was to hear about knee trouble or other reasons he couldn’t.

“Three miles a day,” he said, “plus I walk a fourth one.” He exercises other muscles at the same time by doing about 500 tensile contractions per mile. I decided not to disclose my favorite workout is pulling a rope to keep a hammock swinging. That is, however, in addition to a rigorous typing regimen and high-speed piano playing. Not to brag, but my fingers could pass for 65.

At the time of our April 4th visit, Harold lacked about 140 miles traveling around the world by foot, a distance of 24,900 miles. That’s based on estimates from 1981 through 1987 and records kept since 1988. If miles were added beginning with childhood, he’s well on his second lap.

His sense of humor has held up as well as his legs. “I’ve been running to or from something all my life,” he said, but I knew he was half kidding. At 13 he was the sole employee on the night shift at Odom’s Texaco station off I 75, working eleven to seven. When a young teenager walks in the shoes of a man, he isn’t prone to running away from anything.

After high school, Harold went to Mercer on a combination scholarship including academics, working with the basketball program, and pitching on the baseball team. Accepted into the Experimental Freshman Program, he’s been steadily running forward as long as I’ve known him.

Today’s article, per Harold’s request, was to feature the OAS, but I thought it might be helpful to first introduce him as one of their faithful members. Although he works at Warner Robins Air Force Base, his passion is archeology, a common thread of OAS members. They’re a friendly group who welcome others wanting to learn more or perhaps even join them.

Several professionals are involved in leadership, like Ashley Quinn, Collections Manager of the William P. Walls Museum of Natural History. Or Stephen Hammock, a respected archeologist with 25 years of experience, who founded OAS in 2003. And there’s Cortney Whitehouse, a delightful young lady who left a career in human resources to work on a degree in archaeology because that’s where her heart is.

John and David, two pleasant senior citizens who help with Artifact Identification Days, confirmed my suspicions that the Indiana Jones movie character is based on Harold. They didn’t specifically state that but smiled as they acknowledged having seen him wearing a similar hat.

If you want to learn more about the OAS, their website describes their mission, projects, resources, and opportunities for participation. Or you can email them at Make no bones about it, they stand ready to teach others the right way to dig into things.  

Harold shared some details about a few of the intriguing items he’s discovered. Their origins far precede the arrowheads typically found in Georgia. As he searches for history and tries to preserve it, he feels a spiritual connection to those who walked here long before us. With decades of experience, he sees things which might be overlooked and permanently hidden or destroyed.

Like his fellow OAS members, Harold has a patient reverence toward archeology. His goal is more than finding artifacts. He wants to understand who left them here and why.

Some mysteries can’t be solved on this side of heaven, but a man who has already circled the globe and is still running will no doubt keep trying. A passion for the past is why he does what he does. That’s why my friend Harold Gray keeps digging up stones.      

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Sometimes I Wonder – Part 2

Today’s query to ponder: “Can a cat be dog tired?”

I’m not certain why dogs were chosen to represent exhaustion. Mules would have been a good fit with their long days of plodding through hot fields. Old mule tales describe heehaws of celebration when tractors came along. The laughter stopped, however, at the glue plant gates, a poignant reminder to be careful of what we wish for.

Perhaps the canine reference originated in Alaska where sleds are pulled across snow and ice. Or maybe it grew out of the deplorable practice of fight rings. My idea for hell’s entertainment night is to let the dogs be spectators. The most dog-tired dog I’ve ever seen, however, wore himself out repeatedly of his own accord. Spot was enthusiastic about activities which sapped his energy but lifted his spirits.    

The cowering black dog with a patch of white was young and starving when he cautiously crept out of a cotton field and warily eased into my parents’ yard. Someone had probably left him on the roadside at a nearby creek. Maybe they felt better abandoning him by muddy water and woods to scavenge. Or perhaps they chose the place simply because the road is not frequently traveled.

He was afraid to let anyone get near him but too hungry to run away. It’s pitiful when a helpless critter barely past the puppy stage understands cruelty so well. Mama and Daddy weren’t in the market for a pet, but sometimes one comes along and there’s not much to do except fry more hoecakes of cornbread. Our oldest grandchild, Abby, sealed the deal.

Abby was two when she met Spot on a visit to the farm. He was beginning to trust the hands that fed him, but his residency status had not been fully decided. Abby called him Sfot instead of Spot, which somehow further endeared him and her to my parents. When a great-grandchild utters a cute name while hugging a dog who hugs her back, there’s nothing to discuss.   

Spot never grew to be big, maybe 40 pounds or so, but was all muscle. He stayed in shape by racing against passing vehicles and running to the fishpond when my brother headed that way. He’d go full speed to get there before Jimmy did, then later scamper back home to beat him on the return.

Two things Spot didn’t tolerate were snakes and armadillos. Winner-take-all fights would leave him foaming at the mouth and so tired he could hardly stand.

We don’t know how many snakes Spot killed. Some were no doubt harmless, but it’s hard to teach a dog who heralds from the wild to be selective. Water moccasins were his specialty, and he didn’t limit his pursuits to the banks of the pond. If he saw a snake swimming, he’d jump in and go after it. His win-loss record was almost perfect, but on three occasions he took some hits. Spot never got real sick, so apparently was fast enough to avoid full doses of venom.

Armadillos, with their hard shells, were almost beyond his ability but that didn’t’ deter him. If one reached a hole before he did, Spot would dig for hours. He’d pull the armadillo out by the tail then dispense his brand of unforgiving justice. Most dogs would have called a truce, but Spot didn’t believe in negotiating with the enemy.

After battling an armadillo Spot’s energy would be depleted. With a little rest, though, he’d soon be ready to go again. He didn’t consider exhaustion a burden as it came from doing something he was passionate about. That works the same for mankind, especially if the cause is worthwhile.           

Reminiscing about Spot sidetracked me from today’s stated topic. I have, however, been mulling it over. My conclusion is it’s possible for a cat to be dog tired, but I’m not sure how to tell. Cats often look tired and don’t need an excuse to relax. It’s what they do best.

That’s not meant as a criticism. My eyelids are sagging as sirens of slumber sweetly beckon. Before I give in, though, another pressing matter has come to mind: “Can a dog take a cat nap?”

The answer may not be readily found, but rather than frantically pondering, I’ll sleep on it a little while. You don’t have to be dog tired to enjoy a cat nap on a Sunday afternoon. Some folks say relaxing is what I do best.      

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Sometimes I Wonder

Questions I can’t answer often awaken me during the night. Trying to resume sleep while thinking about such matters can be frustrating. Here’s an example: Sometimes I wonder if a dog would be embarrassed to be described as catatonic.

The research department at Joiner’s Corner says the word catatonic evolved from an unconventional treatment for anxiety in the early part of the 20th century. The concept literally fell into the lap of a professor who taught psychiatry at a prestigious institution in Alabama.

He maintained that certain patients could benefit from feline therapy. “Prescribe for them a cat,” he implored his young charges. “The comfort of a cat in one’s lap is often better than a tonic.” An astute sophomore reportedly wrote “cat – a tonic” in his study notes, then shared his clever memory trick with several cute freshman girls. They took it from there.   

Our research team is admittedly understaffed, poorly funded, and has a questionable commitment to accuracy. Their explanation of catatonic’s origin, however, seems highly creditable.

This particular nighttime pondering refers only to English speaking dogs and perhaps should include those with a background in Latin. Reputable studies have documented dogs’ ability to understand up to 250 words. Whether that’s factual I don’t know. It may be the work of another research group also having a stellar reputation of unreliability.

It’s a challenge for me to accept the possibility of such an expansive canine vocabulary because of Dude the Barking Dog. He only responds to a few short sentences such as, “Suppertime,” or, “Come and get it.” He seems to have no concept of, “You better stop that barking!” or “Don’t you make me come out there again!”

Dude’s night persona is a monster who has no vocal restraints. It wouldn’t be quite as bad if he’d change his tune a little and give it some variety. Instead, he barks for hours in one of his two patterns. It’s either, “Ruff, ruff,” or “Ruff, ruff, ruff.” The triple-ruff routine is initially a little more palatable than the double-ruff, but they are equally annoying after thirty minutes.

Lately he’s added a strange moan in which he seems to be imitating a train whistle or siren from an emergency vehicle. He’s not ready for prime-time television, but we’re considering hiring an agent. The soulful wails sound like he’s dying. I went outside to check on him the first time, thinking he must be in pain. He smiled and asked for a treat but was instead admonished with a strongly delivered, “Bad dog, bad dog, bad, bad dog!” He looked so sad, however, I gave him a gravy flavored chew strip which smelled so good I ate a slice of beef jerky before returning to bed.

Daytime is a different matter. Dude sleeps most of the day and will only go for short walks. After circling the house, he’s eager for a big can of scrumptious stew to supplement the unlimited crunchies in his silver-plated bowl. We began spoiling Dude when the vet thought our canine buddy was headed for doggie heaven. Once you go down that road it’s hard to turn around. Dude has figured us out, I guess.

After a recent night of incessant barking, I’d had all I could take. Early the next morning I went into Dude’s sleeping quarters and barked as loudly as I could before reading him the riot act. I didn’t realize how well my voice projects from our carport until Fletcher, a young fellow who lives about three football fields away, came to see if everything was okay.  

Apparently, Dude knows my bark is worse than my bite. He slightly opened one eye and appeared disinterested. “It hurts me to say this Dude, but I’m going to be honest with you. You’re a terror at night but by day you’re catatonic.” His jaw dropped open and I thought he was about to offer an apology. Then he yawned, turned his head toward the wall, and drifted back off to sleep.

I’ve put a poster by his bed that says, “Quiet Please. Catatonic Dog at Rest.” It’s a subtle way of reminding him we don’t approve of his behavior. I don’t know how other dogs might feel about being called catatonic, but I can say with confidence Dude is not easily embarrassed.

If he continues with his nighttime antics, I’m considering a new approach to get some relief. My idea is to hang a big sign above my hammock and hope the nice lady who mows our grass will honor my request. “Quiet please. Catatonic Man at Rest.”                              

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An Ominous Cloud

A photo wouldn’t have done it justice, but I wish I’d tried. It was an ominous cloud, massive and peculiarly long. I left the farm just after midday on March 18th and headed toward home, going west on the Pinehurst-Hawkinsville Highway. A couple of miles before the I 75 overpass I slowed to a snail’s pace and stared in awe. 

Rain was predicted but this was no ordinary formation. A sharp point loomed dauntingly over Pinehurst, securely attached to an oversized spear that stretched toward Unadilla. Smooth edges provided a border almost absent of irregularities. A lighter shade of blue supported the long cloud from below with a medium-blue sky pressing down from above.    

I called my wife to tell her she might want to look out our front door. Although the tip of the point was not as well defined from her view, it seemed to begin across the road from our home. It’s difficult, however, to judge heavenly distances, which reminds me of a story I heard decades ago.

Steve English of Vienna was working in the criminal justice system when he told me about a recent courtroom episode he’d attended as an observer. Gary Christy, a mutual friend and District Attorney at the time, had skeptically cross-examined a defense witness in a murder trial. The incident had occurred on the Crisp County side of Lake Blackshear.

While fishing off his dock late one night, a man was shot and killed. The only witness was a 95-year-old woman whose account contradicted the prosecution’s version. She maintained the shooter acted in self-defense, even though he was on another man’s property and they had a history of conflicts.

Gary politely asked the elderly lady to recount the events of that night, which she did in minute detail. She had been looking out her kitchen window just after the ten o’clock news while getting a drink of water before going to bed. The men were waving their arms and appeared to be in a heated argument. “No doubt they were having some strong words,“ she said, “but the scuffle started when my neighbor grabbed his Zebco 33 and whopped that fellow on the side of his head.”

“Thank you,” said Gary with a disarming smile as he addressed the diminutive gray-haired woman. “If you don’t mind, I’ll summarize your testimony to be certain I’m clear on everything.”

“Help yourself,” she replied.

“You were at your kitchen window looking out toward Lake Blackshear about 10:30 pm. Is that correct?”

“That’s right,” she affirmed.

“The distance from your kitchen window to the end of the dock where the shooting occurred has been documented to be 407 feet. Do you agree with that?” he inquired.

“I’ve never measured it,” she said, “but that seems about right.”

“It’s also my understanding,” continued Gary, “it was a rather dark night with a heavy fog and there were no lights on at the dock or in the yard. Is that the way you remember it?”

“You’re right on track,” said the lady.

“Is it possible,” Gary asked delicately, “you could be mistaken about what you think you saw occur on the end of that dock 407 feet from your window on a dark, foggy night?”

“Oh, no sir,” she said emphatically. “I saw it clearly.”

“One more thing,” said Gary, adeptly disguising his confidence in the telling question he was about to present. “You apparently have exceptional vision, so I can’t help but wonder about something. Just how far can you see at night?”

“I don’t know,” she answered with a nonchalant shrug. “How far is it to the moon?”

Shortly after hearing that story, I saw Harry Hurt, our distinguished Superior Court Judge. Harry gently informed me that tale had been around for ages. Steve was so convincing I’d had no suspicions.

Wind, rain, and house-shaking rumbles of thunder came with that ominous cloud, but late in the day a waning sun peeked through the ethereal quietness that sometimes follows a storm. Delicate fingers of light brushed soft pastels onto a canvas of tranquility.

Surrounded by a divine serenity, I was reminded that the darkest clouds are often a prelude to the sweetest light. A photo wouldn’t have done it justice, but I wish I’d tried.    

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The Cries of the Innocent

April 2, 2022. Ukraine was a place I knew little about until recently. In 2019 I heard about their democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, transitioning from comedian to politician. It was an amusing tale of a young man’s unlikely path from a television sitcom to leader of his nation.

I wondered if Mr. Zelensky was prepared for his new job, as I fondly recalled Pat Paulson. Pat was a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and made a career of running for President. His deadpan persona and satirical comments on serious topics endeared him to many. When his farcical solutions to real problems were skeptically questioned, his patented reply was, “Picky, picky, picky.”     

In further considering Mr. Zelensky’s potential, another career changer came to mind, a movie star turned governor then president. Ronald Reagan, a man of deep convictions and strong opinions, earned the respect of his fellow Americans and people around the globe, even those who disagreed vehemently with his politics. He proved that forcefulness pairs well with humor and respect, memorably showing a hint of a smile as he told Mr. Gorbachev to, “tear down this wall!” 

Zelensky has turned out to be the personification of courage in dealing with a situation more horrendous than could have been imagined. He and his countrymen are valiantly defending their homeland, but the carnage is immense and growing. The horror reaches far beyond the soldiers and armed civilians who are being killed, mutilated, and displaced. The cries of the innocent are everywhere.

A heartless tyrant with more ambition than conscience is bombing hospitals, schools, food warehouses, apartment buildings, and places of refuge for defenseless people. His tactics are consistent with a character known to steal, kill, and destroy. (John 10:10) But wait, there’s more. Satan must also be proud of how adeptly Putin employs deception. (John 8:42-47)

He said they weren’t planning an invasion. Then after the invasion he claimed to be protecting Russia and fighting neo-Nazis. President Zelensky’s parents are Jewish, an unlikely home to produce offspring with an affection for Nazis. Now Putin is indoctrinating Russians with propaganda and silencing those who would share the truth. The father of lies appears to have a son.

If Lucifer rates Putin on their other three commonalities, he scores exceptionally well. He’s doing a remarkable job of killing people and doing it with flair, spreading the murders all the way from the unborn to the aged. Bombing a maternity hospital is quite Hitleresque.

Putin’s inclination to steal was probably encouraged when he took Crimea away from Ukraine in 2014. He saw something he wanted, took it, then laughed at the sanctions that were barely a slap on the hand. When you steal and don’t face consequences, there’s little incentive to reform.

Destruction is also an area where Putin excels. He’s destroyed families, health, jobs, properties, and happiness. He’s destroyed a peaceful way of life and the hopes and dreams of multiple generations.

It surprised me to learn there’s some evidence he may consider himself a Christian. I hate to be skeptical, but sure would love to have a talk with his pastor. He addressed a crowded stadium in late March and quoted John 15:13 in saluting the Russian soldiers. “No greater love is this than a man would lay down his life for his friends.” When Putin quoted Jesus, it made me cringe. Someone else, however, probably put down his pitchfork and heartily applauded. 

I have no expertise in matters of such gravity, and certainly no desire for World War III. But if it were put to a vote, I’d support giving Ukraine whatever they need to send the Russians home, retake Crimea, collect reimbursements for damages, and make house calls on the Russian butcher and his Kremlin cronies. Doing the right thing can be costly, but it eventually costs more not to.            

We can keep adding sanctions and sending aid and see what’s left after the massacre is over, see whose flag stands watch over a ravaged country with a remnant of broken people. Or we can do everything within our power, even if it’s painful, to stop a madman on a hellish rampage.

My hope is that we choose to stop him. If we listen with our hearts, we can’t escape hearing the mournful wails of a suffering nation pleading for help. The cries of the innocent are everywhere.            

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A Merry Heart

“A Greatly Blessed Life” is a 2018 column about Mr. Charles Speight of Unadilla, Georgia. He was almost 96 at the time and constantly on the go. When I inquired about the secret to his longevity, he had answered without hesitation. “Not dying,” he said with a smile.

His quick wit and joyful outlook are fully intact as he approaches centenarian status. On April 2nd he’ll celebrate his 100th birthday, a milestone especially noteworthy because of his optimistic approach to life. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Mr. Charles is living proof.

In late February I called him about a rumor he’d be throwing the game ball out for the Atlanta Braves on his birthday. He explained that John Offenberg had tossed that idea around town. “I asked John,” he continued, “whether I should work on my curve ball or knuckle ball, but he wants speed.”

“My fast ball is up to 15 miles per hour,” he added, “and staying in the air over 17 feet.” Whether Mr. Charles will get a call from Atlanta I don’t know, but I can’t think of a better way to start a game than having a decorated World War II fighter pilot take the mound.

On a sidenote, I’ve never publicly thanked John Offenberg for a personal favor from several years ago. John called me aside at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in late 2015. “I know you have a lot to take care of before leaving the bank,“ he said. “I thought it might be helpful if I wrote your retirement speech for you.” On a business card he’d scribbled, “Goodbye tension. Hello pension.”

Mr. Charles and I visited in his backyard on March 18th. Covid protocols have kept him close to home recently. He had returned to church for a while and resumed teaching the A. B. Hosea Sunday School Class, a men’s group he’s taught since Father’s Day in June 1956. When Covid surged again, he took his doctor’s advice about limiting his exposure.

“The hardest part of this pandemic for me,” he said, “is not getting out and seeing people.” Those who know him understand perfectly. Until the coronavirus interfered, he was teaching Sunday School weekly, meeting with The Coffee Club Monday through Friday, participating in Lion’s Club and Chamber of Commerce activities, and visiting friends who could no longer drive.

Driving is on a temporary hold due to a fractured bone in his leg. “I didn’t fall,” he politely corrected me. “I just tripped over the hearth.” He wasn’t going to mention the mishap to his family, but his daughter, Patti, and oldest son, Charlie, were checking on him as usual and stayed until bedtime. He reluctantly confessed he might need help getting out of his chair.  

One medical option was to slowly recuperate by severely limiting his movements. The other was to repair the fracture with three screws, which would let him to do whatever the pain allowed. It’s not surprising he chose surgery. He’s walking for exercise, watching old westerns on his iPad, reading The Atlanta Journal and Macon Telegraph, and calling friends regularly.

With typical modesty, he declined to offer any advice for young folks. “I don’t need to be giving advice,” he said with a grin. “I need y’all to give me some.” I trust he knows how much his wisdom is valued by others, and how inspirational his godly example is for young, old, and those in between.

I asked how he remains so optimistic. “I love people and the Lord has blessed me,” he answered. “Teaching Sunday School has been one of the greatest blessings I’ve experienced. I wasn’t prepared to teach those men when they elected me, but it caused me to study my Bible more. And that’s helped me have a better understanding of how I should live.”

He’s taught Sunday School longer than anyone I know, sold tons of onions for the Lion’s Club, and been a community leader for decades. Now he’s anxious to get back in circulation. “I’m keeping up with how many hugs I’m due from the ladies,” he said, noting the pandemic has taken a severe toll on hugs, handshakes, and visits.

“What do you want for your birthday?” I asked, figuring he wouldn’t say more shirts or ties. “Just good friends and good health,” he quickly replied. “I don’t need anything else.”

As we shook hands to say goodbye, I had a better perspective of Solomon’s proverb. A merry heart, I realized, affects far more than one person. I understood that better, because Mr. Charles had shared a generous dose of his merry-heart medicine with me. Happy birthday and God bless. Play ball!            

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Yesterday – Part 4

It seems like only yesterday I walked into Freeman’s Pharmacy in Unadilla with my father, unaware my short pants were on backward. I wasn’t a fan of shorts during childhood. The farmers of Third District dressed in khakis or blue jeans, with an occasional old timer clad in overalls. I figured short britches were for little kids, not someone closing in on his fifth birthday.

None of my favorite television cowboys wore short pants either. Not Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, or The Cisco Kid. And certainly not Zorro, who would have looked odd with a sword dangling against his bare legs. I was constantly amazed how he could escape a dozen soldiers armed only with a sword, black cape, and chandelier to swing from. That’s not something a man in short pants could have done, unless his plan was to distract them with laughter.

My favorite superheroes also wore long pants, except for Robin, who probably shouldn’t be counted. He was an assistant, not a stand-alone star. Batman, of course, had a full body costume, including tiny ears on top of his head that struck me as rather useless.

Full-length tights covered Superman’s legs for supersonic flights, probably to prevent windburn. I’m not saying a superhero can’t put on short pants occasionally, but they generally don’t pair well with capes. Superman’s garb was worn beneath his Clark Kent attire, so that it would only take a split second to change. Criminals are not inclined to hit the pause button while good guys switch outfits.

I’ve never tried to change clothes in a phone booth, but I think the camera crew sped up the film for that scene. Otherwise, it would have been intolerably dull viewing. Plus, Superman’s identity could have been discovered and possibly have cost him his reporter’s job.

Sometimes late at night when sleep won’t come, I ponder how people reacted when they found the clothes Superman left behind. Did they know the items belonged to their beloved hero and leave them alone? Or did they think, wow, here’s a dark suit in my size that’s hardly been worn, plus shoes, belt, and stylish glasses.

A new group of cowboys soon came along, still dressed in long pants. Josh Randall, a bounty hunter, had an uncanny ability to dodge bullets by rolling in the streets or jumping behind water troughs. I used to wonder who plugged all the leaks after the shooting was over. Josh was unusual in that he carried a cut-down Winchester carbine. It never failed him that I recall.

Paladin hid a little derringer in his belt buckle. A single chamber was enough because of the uncertainty of who he would shoot. Or a gang’s leader, fearing for his own life, would order his cronies to drop their guns. That one bullet must have been huge to scare so many outlaws into submission.

Rowdy Yates, Gil Favor, Marshall Dillon and The Rifleman all wore long pants, plus Heath from The Big Valley and the Cartwright family on The Ponderosa. Daniel Boone had to because of poison ivy.           

My disapproving attitude toward wearing shorts may be why I had so carelessly donned them years ago. With a friendly smile Dr. Freeman asked, “Why do you have your shorts on backward, son?”

“So people won’t know if I’m coming or going,” I replied.

I’m not sure I remember the actual event or just think I do because my parents recounted it so many times. It’s my earliest recollection of saying something that caused someone to laugh. That was a good feeling back then and still is, but I’m finding humor increasingly refuses to be punctual. The window of opportunity for punch lines closes quickly.

Eventually I embraced short pants, despite having skinny snow-white legs that look better covered. Jane bought me some super comfortable shorts a couple of years back to wear around the house. Elastic waist bands allow me to pull them up high to imitate an old man.

A uniformed lady rang our doorbell as she delivered a package requiring a signature. “Your shorts are on backward,” she said politely, stifling her laughter as I scribbled my name.

“I didn’t have a choice,” I replied. “That’s the way my wife folded them.” I thought that was a pretty clever line. It would have been a lot funnier if I’d said it before she drove away.

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