A Lullabye on the Lake

Aaron Brown loves being on the water.  He was a professional skier in his younger days, a fearless competitor plus a master of entertainment.  He skied in delightful venues like Callaway Gardens, as well as foreboding places where alligators wistfully stared from the bank.

He skied in multiple commercials for Channel 5 in Nashville, Tennessee, while building relationships that would serve him well later.  He was involved when Channel 5 made the first episode of Hee Haw.  CBS didn’t think the concept would work, but they agreed that if enough stations signed up they would carry the show.  Aaron hit the road with the pilot and sold folks on its potential.  He was there at the beginning for something that became a staple of family friendly TV.

It was almost 20 years ago when I first met Aaron at Center Hill Lake near Nashville.  My wife, Jane, and I were visiting her brother, Rick, and his wife, Vicki.  Rick introduced us to Aaron, a man we immediately found easy to like.  He and Rick have taught two of our grandchildren to ski, and to do so with confidence.  The best way to learn is to learn from the best.  That goes for a lot more things than just water sports.

Aaron’s been dealing with Parkinson’s Disease for several years.  That’s slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t defined him.  He doesn’t do the flips and tricks we’ve long enjoyed watching, but he’s the only 78-year old I know who still grabs a rope handle and glides swiftly across the water.

Aaron is affectionately referred to as the honorary Mayor of Center Hill Lake.  It’s a beautiful place, having more than 22,000 acres of clear water from the Caney Fork River.  Aaron’s had a house there since 1971, long before it became a popular spot for the homes and cabins now perched along the tree-lined mountain sides.  It is, I suppose, not surprising that Aaron’s time on the water led to something more than skiing.

About thirty years ago Aaron and a friend, Jerry Michael, were taking an afternoon sabbatical on the lake.  They had come to relax and work on a song for country singer George Strait.  Jerry was quietly humming Rock-A-Bye Baby, a tune which unexpectedly sidetracked their conversation.

They began talking about the lyrics, “Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock.  When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”  It seemed, they thought, an odd message for a mother to sing to her precious child.

Aaron and Jerry began working on some new songs for babies that expressed the tender love of a mother, songs that would blend pleasantly into the sweetest of dreams, soothing songs you could wrap snugly in a blanket and kiss goodnight.

They could have churned out some numbers and hastily put a respectable product on store shelves.  But Aaron wanted to create something that would last.  He envisioned lullabyes and orchestration of exceptional quality, music that was pleasing to hear as well as to sing along with.

It was a three-year process in which hundreds of possible songs were narrowed down to only nine. They were included in A Child’s Gift of Lullabyes, a warmly received collection that received a Grammy nomination.

Since then Aaron has produced five more sets in the Lullabye series.  With two Grammys and eight nominations, his vision of gently flowing music for mothers and babies has been widely embraced.  The cassettes evolved to CDs and now to streaming, a term that seems appropriate for an idea conceived on a river.  Millions of fans around the world now listen to Lullabyes in six different languages.

I recently watched an interview recorded a few years back where Aaron said he wanted his life to matter.   Moments later he added a bit more insight, a subtle message of wisdom that comes with age.  He said, “The older you get the louder you hear the clock ticking.”

Aaron loves to ski, but he also finds great satisfaction in teaching others.  He loves music, but his real joy comes through sharing it.  I think his passion is not so much what he does, but why he does it.  When I think of Aaron, it’s not his proverbial clock that I hear ticking.  What I hear is the rhythmic beating of a kind heart, a steady tempo keeping perfect time with a lullabye on the lake. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you live a life that matters.

Posted in 2018 | 9 Comments

A Flat Tire Memory

Jane and I were on Highway 27 in late December of 2017, headed from Americus to our home near Vienna.   We drove past an abandoned white frame house in rural Sumter County.  It’s been vacant for years and is long past the point of being repairable.

Jane was using her cellphone, so I didn’t mention that the old house and I have a history together.  It’s nothing significant, just a minor event that somehow found a permanent home in my memory.

I think I was in the ninth or tenth grade, but I’m not sure.  Several guys from our Future Farmers of America chapter in Unadilla were on a trip to Americus.  Mr. Ottis Beard, our advisor and ag teacher, was driving his blue Ford pickup.  He had the side bodies on and was hauling our purebred barrows to Americus for a district competition.

A truck tire went flat, and we pulled over near that farmhouse.  Flats were rather common in those days.  This flat was surrounded by some energetic farm boys, so it quickly surrendered.  When Jane and I drove by that old house, I was reminded of that flat tire, and of the barrow show that day.

I don’t remember the name of my barrow.  I’ll just call him Bocephus, because that seems like a good name for a high caliber hog.  I felt that Bocephus had a good chance at winning one of the three ribbons to be awarded.  He carried himself with a confidence that is not often found among swine.

To develop his muscle tone, I had taken him on daily walks of 30 minutes.  Bocephus, like some of my other show hogs, enjoyed the time we spent together.  It didn’t cross my mind that his friendly demeanor might one day be a source of embarrassment.

There were about 20 barrows in the show ring, hailing from several middle Georgia counties.  We handled our pigs like showmen at the circus, always watching the judge and trying to attract his attention, constantly seeking to obtain eye contact, just as we had been taught.

Those hogs made multiple trips trotting around that ring, all of them following some pig who had by default assumed a leadership role.  They ran quickly back and forth from one end to the other, all of them packed neatly into an inseparable group, all of them except for Bocephus.

Despite my frantic pleas, Bocephus refused to act like a normal hog.  I had a big walking stick that Grandaddy Hill had given me.  I wanted to whack Bocephus hard enough to get his attention and make him conform, but I’d never done that at home and figured I shouldn’t start now.

I knew that Bocephus would soon be leaving on a different truck than he came in on.  It didn’t seem right that we should part on bad terms.  So, with a face as flushed as my spirit, I tapped him lightly, just like I had at home.  We walked slowly around the ring, taking whatever path Bocephus chose.

The judge called out the third, second, and first place winners.  I wasn’t surprised that Bocephus didn’t place, and I knew that my poor presentation was partly to blame.  Even worse, the two of us were still not part of the group, but were instead standing conspicuously alone.

The judge announced that there was a final award he would present, the award for showmanship.  He said there was only one person in the ring who maintained control of his barrow the entire time, whose hog remained separate from the group and could be clearly seen.  He shook my hand and handed me a new walking stick made from white oak and polished to a high gloss finish.

I knew that Bocephus deserved the award more than me, but he never was good at grasping things with his feet.  I kept that walking stick for years, but lost track of it somewhere along the line.

The late Reverend Doug Fullington shared something with me a long time ago that his grandfather had told him.  He said, “If you always follow the crowd, the crowd will never follow you.”  I think that’s the same lesson that Bocephus tried to teach me that day in Americus.  Good lessons can come from unlikely sources if we’re willing to learn.

I’m glad that flat tire memory and that old house still remind me of Bocephus, because Bocephus reminds me that following the crowd is often not the best road to take.  Lonesome roads can lead to rich rewards.  I sure wish I could find that walking stick.

Posted in 2018 | 9 Comments

Mr. Dittmore

Mr. Dittmore and I had a very quiet ride on the hour-long trip from Vienna to Macon.  He said nothing to me, nor I to him.  That was usually how it went when I had a passenger in the back of the hearse.

From December 1975 through the end of 1980 I worked with my father’s nephew, Rooney Bowen.  He owned a Chevy dealership and a nearby funeral home.  From cars to caskets, we had it covered.

I never met Mr. Dittmore.  He was a tourist passing through on I-75 with some of his family.  I don’t remember where he was from or where he was going.  Seems like they were on their way to Florida, but I’m no longer certain of that.

Bowen Funeral Home handled about 50 calls a year, almost all of them being local residents.  I can still name a few of the people we buried during my five years of employment.  Mr. Dittmore, however, is the only name I can recall of a person I never met.

Cremations were not common at that time, at least not in our part of rural Georgia.  On the rare occasion that we had such a request, we took the deceased person to Hart’s Mortuary in Macon.  I left Mr. Dittmore’s body at their crematory and returned to Vienna, not having any inclination to learn the details of the process.

Mr. Dittmore’s family continued on their southward route.  They planned to pick up his ashes on their return trip home.  There was no rush for us to go back to Macon.

Herschel Davis was the longtime mortician for the funeral home.  He was a big man with an easy-going disposition, greatly loved by the community and the many families he served.  His respectful approach to work was reflected in his kind manner and attention to detail.

A few days after my trip to Macon, I stopped by the funeral home.  Herschel was in the office with his feet propped up on the desk.  He was lighting another cigarette to add to an overflowing ashtray.  I picked up a small cardboard box that he had apparently seen no urgency in opening.

“What’s this?” I asked, while trying to read the label.

“Mr. Dittmore,” Herschel replied.  His knowing smile was somewhat obscured by the cigarette he held between two fingers.  He took another long draw without making further comment.

“Mr. Dittmore?” I asked, stunned that he had returned to Dooly County by way of the U.S. Postal Service.

“Mr. Dittmore,” he confirmed, still smiling as he exhaled a cloud of smoke. That little brown box was suddenly too heavy to hold.  I delicately placed it back on the desktop where I had found it.

That was my first experience with cremation.  My opinion then was that it was best to be facing east like the rest of our family.  Cremation has, however, travelled a slow road toward acceptability for me and many others.  I figure that since Adam came from dust, ashes won’t cause any delays on Resurrection Day.

In December of 1980 I changed jobs and began working at Bank of Dooly.  Over the years there were several occasions when families came in to borrow money for traditional type burials.  Cremation, though much less expensive, was never an option those families considered.

But it led me to do some soul searching of my own, to weigh the pros and cons of different methods for those final arrangements.  One night after supper I decided to have a serious talk with my wife, Jane.  I said, “Honey, with funeral costs going up, I’ve been thinking about cremation.”

She was more startled than I had expected.  “I didn’t think you would want to be cremated,” she remarked with a bewildered look.

That’s when I said more than I should have.  “I wasn’t talking about me,” I responded.

I should have known better.  Cremation can be a hot topic.

 

Posted in 2018 | 6 Comments

Queenie

February 5, 1981

JOINER’S STORE – COCA COLA SINCE 1902.  That’s what the sign on the front of the small white frame building says.  I don’t know if that’s when my grandfather, Jim Joiner, first opened the store or if that’s when he began selling Cokes.  That was fifty years before I came on the scene.

Papa Joiner died in 1957 when I was almost five.  Uncle Emmett began running the store a little before then.  It’s been a longtime gathering place for the farmers who live nearby.  Uncle Emmett helps facilitate their friendly banter that covers everything from crops to politics.  Almost every conversation is seasoned generously with good-natured teasing.  That’s the main reason they still come.

Some of them stop by twice a day for a refreshment break, once in mid-morning and then again in the afternoon.  They are accustomed to sharing smatterings of local happenings as they pause to enjoy a Moon Pie and a Coke.  But the news on that cold day in February came as a shock to those gathered around the gas heater.  Queenie was dead.

“I know they must be mighty sad over at Ben Wilkes’ house,” one remarked.  The others were respectfully quiet and nodded in agreement.

Queenie’s passion for her work had earned her quite a reputation among the men in the community.  Finn Cross was in the store that day.  He had joined Ben Wilkes many times following the Brittany Spaniel’s rambling trail.  Queenie stood atop the pedestal of birddogs.  She was perhaps the most adept quail hunter that ever passed through this part of Dooly County.

Queenie pointed, Ben shot, and birds fell.  It was a well-established routine they had long perfected but never grew tired of.  Ben seldom misses when he raises his gun.  Maybe that gave Queenie an extra dose of inspiration.

Ben is a good enough shot to clean out a covey, but a wise enough sportsman not to.  “Leave some birds to rebuild,” is what he says.  He understands that hunting is not just about the moment, that it’s also about those moments somewhere down the road.  I think that Queenie may have understood that too.  I think she appreciated that Ben tempered his ability with discretion.  They were a perfectly matched team.

Queenie was more than just an excellent hunter.  She served an uncommon dual role for a birddog by also being a beloved family pet.  Ben’s wife, Joyce, said that her mother-in-law told her years earlier to, “Love Ben and love his dogs.”  Joyce says she didn’t love all of them, but Queenie was different.  In the woods she was the avid hunter.  In the yard she was the loving playmate for Ben and Joyce’s two daughters.

Ben built Queenie a wooden coffin, then shoveled out a place for her among the pines and broom sage on The Scarborough Farm.  As far back as I can remember those woods have offered a splendid habitat for quail.  Countless coveys have made it their home.  It was for a while Queenie’s dominion.

Ben did one last thing for Queenie.  He walked alone into the tall pines and fired a single shot.  He gently placed the still warm quail in Queenie’s mouth, then softly spread the freshly dug dirt over her grave.  The bobwhite whistle of a distant bird echoed through the thicket, offering a chance but proper eulogy.

“Yep,” someone somberly agreed.  “I reckon that Ben is mighty sad about Queenie.”

Finn Cross knew Queenie much better than most.  “I’m sad too,” he added in quiet reflection.

And the men warmed their hands around the heater, knowing there was nothing else that needed to be said.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

Eagle With a Broken Wing

Bald eagles have an inherently regal quality about them.  I love those videos that show an eagle diving toward the blue waters of a pristine lake and adeptly catching his prey.  His eyes are intense, his skill remarkable, and his mission clear.  There is something quite satisfying in watching that majestic bird successfully put fresh fish on the dinner table.

A May 2018 edition of The Macon Telegraph told about a middle Georgia eagle that was euthanized due to injuries.  One of the eagle’s wings had been broken during a collision with a vehicle.  According to the article the eagle was feasting on roadkill, a practice that seems inappropriate for such a stately creature.  I’ve learned since, unfortunately, that such behavior is not isolated.

I mentioned the story to a man who spends a lot of time outdoors.  He said that not only will eagles eat roadkill, but they’ll sometimes run the buzzards off to claim it.  Up until that point I was trying to give the wayward Macon eagle the benefit of the doubt.  I thought he was perhaps devouring a critter he had been pursuing.  But now I’m thinking that he had found some leftovers by the highway.

It’s hard to imagine how that eagle had strayed so far from what he could have been.  Instead of a magnificent hunter he had become a lowly scavenger.  Rather than riding high on heavenly winds he was standing along the highway mimicking unseemly behavior.

It’s possible he wasn’t taught well by his parents.  Maybe he grew up having to figure it out for himself and never learned what Jesus said about choosing the straight and narrow path.  (Matthew 7:13-14.)  Having loving parents who are good examples goes a long way in life.  Perhaps that eagle didn’t have solid guidance at home and didn’t find it elsewhere.

Or it’s possible that he came from a good home but drifted away from what he had been taught.  Maybe he kept seeing those buzzards congregate and his curiosity got the best of him.  He may have noticed they kept going back for second helpings and decided it must taste better than it looked.  What at first may have seemed repulsive probably became more acceptable over time.

It could be that he was influenced by some wayward friends.  Once his pals crossed that line of propriety, they may have encouraged him to join them.  It’s easy to imagine them saying, “Why don’t you just try it?  One time won’t hurt you.”  Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator.  Fitting in is more comfortable than standing alone.

There’s also no telling what role that television, movies, and music may have played in that eagle’s downfall.  He was probably offended at first by situations that glorified roadkill dining, but I expect he got used to it as it became more common.  He may have flipped the channels, but he probably didn’t see much difference in the content.  I’m sure he didn’t want to unplug his TV, so he just kept watching those buzzards gather along the roadside.  With movies and music also glamorizing the buzzard lifestyle, he perhaps began to think it wasn’t so bad after all.

Even if that eagle had serious doubts, he may have been too polite to express them.  If he took a stand against the buzzard lifestyle, then he would no doubt be criticized as narrow minded and uncaring.  He might even have been accused of having no love or compassion for the buzzards themselves.  That eagle probably found it a lot easier to stay quiet and try to blend in.

It’s a shame that a master of flight died while walking the low road of life.  It’s mostly his fault I guess.  He was in a place he shouldn’t have been and doing something he wasn’t intended for.  It’s too late for him, but maybe some other eagles will learn from his tragic demise.  The choice of fearlessly soaring in the sky or scavenging the roadways would seem to be a simple one.

Those videos that show an eagle diving for a fish are nice, but I had hoped one day to see that take place in person from a front row seat.  I’m beginning to think that may never happen.  My expectations have been tempered a bit when it comes to eagles.

The thing that troubles me most though, is that it seems to be getting harder to distinguish the eagles from the buzzards.  I think it’s because they’re increasingly dining on similar fare.  Someone should warn the other eagles.  Someone should tell them about that eagle with a broken wing.  But I’ll probably stay quiet and watch something on TV.  It’s a lot easier to just blend in.

 

Posted in 2018 | 5 Comments

Song of the Bluebird

For two years during college I had a summer job at Bluebird Body Company, the well-known school bus manufacturer in Fort Valley, Georgia.  My first employment was during the summer of 1971.

It was hard work but the pay was good.  I worked on the assembly line where driveshafts were installed.  My boss was Mr. James Dupree, a long-time Bluebird employee and a good friend of our family. He was a quiet, pleasant, hard-working man, who set a wonderful example for all of us.

The next year I signed up for another tour of duty.  I expected to return to the same spot on the line.  On the first morning of work, however, the fellow who greeted me called me Steve.  He said that I would be working with Mr. Wiley Patterson, inspecting rivets.  “It’s just you and Mr. Patterson.” he said. “You’ll be looking to see if any rivets are not properly seated.  Then you mark them with chalk.”

I had really enjoyed working with Mr. James Dupree, but I figured Steve would too.  Marking rivets with chalk was a lot more appealing than turning wrenches and handling heavy driveshafts.   I heard that bluebird singing, and I felt like he was singing my song.

Mr. Wiley Patterson was another great boss.  I was six feet five inches tall but only weighed 165 pounds.  I don’t know where all the food went, but it seemed there was no limit to what I could eat.  Mr. Wiley began bringing two extra biscuits for me.  Inside the biscuits would be a piece of country fried steak or cured ham, or sometimes a slice of roast beef with gravy.  This was a snack for our morning break.  It sure beat having a pack of orange colored cheese and peanut butter crackers.

There was, however, a down side to my new job.  Each bus had thousands of rivets holding the exterior sheet metal in place.  The rivets were air hammered one at a time by work hardened men with sinewy muscles.  The buses went down that inspection line quickly.  That part was okay. The problem, however, was a wide disagreement as to what constituted a defectively installed rivet.  Mr. Wiley marked anything that looked suspicious.  He had been there for decades.  Nobody questioned where he used the chalk.

But I was a skinny college kid who was there just for the summer.  When I marked rivets, it was a whole different story.  “You’re killing us!” the air hammer guys would complain.  “There’s nothing wrong with those rivets!”

I would slack up a bit and the air hammer guys would start smiling again.  Then Mr. Wiley would inevitably say, “Steve, are you running low on chalk?  Here are several that you missed.”

Mr. Wiley was a good boss, plus he was bringing those biscuits.  I didn’t want to do anything to interfere with that.  But the fellows with air hammers were always hot and sweaty and barely able to keep up with the buses being rolled down the line.  I sure did hate to mark something that seemed mechanically okay, something that looked a little cocksided but was probably fine.

It was like riding a seesaw but changing partners every few minutes.  It’s hard to get in rhythm that way.  Mr. Wiley and the air hammer guys were seldom happy at the same time.  I felt like an umpire at a Little League game with parents on both sides constantly giving advice.

About halfway through the summer, a Bluebird employee named David Fullington walked by our section. David had been my good friend since Mrs. Kathryn Roberts’ first grade class at Pinehurst Elementary.  He was probably thirty feet away when he shouted out my name and told me to stop loafing.

Mr. Wiley said, “What did he just call you?”

“He called me Neil,” I said.

“Why did he call you Neil?” asked Mr. Wiley.

“Because that’s my name,” I replied.  I told Mr. Wiley what had happened, and that I thought there was probably a guy named Steve who was wondering why he was installing driveshafts.

Mr. Wiley shook his head and laughed.  I survived the summer, and even made friends with the air hammer guys.  That last day of work they told me they hoped I’d be back.  They all shook my hand firmly like they meant it.

When the five o’clock whistle blew, I turned in my chalk.  I heard that bluebird singing once again.  This time I knew it with certainty.  That bluebird was singing my song.

Posted in 2018 | 4 Comments

A Mighty Fine Dog

In late December of 2017 my brother, Jimmy, and I were dining at the Cordele Recreation Parlor, a place more commonly called The Pool Room.  We each were having a chili dog all the way, a bowl of Irish Stew with oyster crackers, and a small bottle of Coke.  We witnessed something that day that I had never seen before and still don’t understand.

Sitting two barstools south of Jimmy was a fellow who was probably in his twenties.  He was dressed nicely and engaged in friendly banter with two other young men.  He ordered a scrambled dog, a magnificent feast that will satisfy the heartiest of appetites.

The lady tending the counter put a milky white mug in front of him.  I assumed it must be frosted in some special way for the holiday season.  The young man quickly downed his drink and quietly motioned for a refill.  The lady reached into the refrigerator, pulled out a gallon of milk, and poured him another glass.

Apparently, there’s no house rule against mixing milk with a scrambled dog, but something about it just seems wrong.  I love milk with hot pound cake, chocolate chip cookies, and dozens of other desserts.  I enjoy milk with sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly, pineapple, and banana.  But I can’t wrap my mind around a milk and chili combination.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on hotdogs.  My appreciation for exceptional presentations began during the early 1970’s when a Mr. Twist franchise opened near Valdosta State College.  It was a fine place for gourmet hotdogs, plus ice cream cones filled with twisted swirls of chocolate and vanilla.  They had perfectly steamed dogs with a dozen or so toppings.  My favorite was their foot-long with slaw and cheese.  That same topping has been a staple in our home for decades, although the dogs are noticeably shorter now.

I began dating my future wife, Jane, in the spring of my sophomore year in 1972.  Not long afterward, I was introduced to The Billiard Academy in her hometown of Thomasville.  It was famous then, as it is now, for their chili dogs.  Their chili is dryer than the norm, something I found odd when I first attended their classes.  I guess they drain the grease off or maybe they cook it using a different method.  Although I am strongly committed to the fight against low cholesterol, I quickly adapted to the Academy’s unique dry-style chili.  I continue to take short courses at The Billiard Academy on the infrequent occasions when I am in Thomasville.

Jane and I moved to Vienna in December of 1975 when I began working at Rooney Bowen Chevrolet.  Johnny Thompson managed the parts department during part of our overlapping careers.  He introduced me to The Pool Room in Cordele.  The two of us frequently took radiators to Cordele for Mr. Tyson to repair.  We coordinated those trips around our lunch hour.

We’d run by Tyson Radiator, then stop at The Pool Room long enough to each down two chili dogs, a bowl of Irish Stew, and an Almond Joy for dessert.  By one p.m. we’d be back at the shop in Vienna.  I’ve been addicted to those chili dogs ever since.

What makes a good dog great is the right topping, a good friend to enjoy it with, and a small bottle of Coke.  I’m hoping to get Johnny to buy my lunch at The Pool Room one day soon.  Maybe that fellow who ordered the milk will be around.  That way Johnny won’t think I’m making this up.

It is with some reluctance that I hereby admit to having a lingering curiosity about pairing a chili dog with milk.  But a small voice somewhere deep inside keeps saying, “Don’t do it!”  I’ve slowly learned over several decades that it’s best to listen to that voice.  One mug of milk with a chili dog probably wouldn’t cause a problem, but it could lead to having milk with fried fish or other unholy combinations.

I missed a good opportunity to help steer that milk-drinking fellow in a better direction.  Maybe someone will give him a copy of this column, or perhaps his friends will schedule an intervention.  The Pool Room serves a mighty fine dog, but it takes a small bottle of Coke to make it perfect.  Coke is how you milk that dog for all it’s worth.

Posted in 2018 | 3 Comments