Things I Don’t Understand – Part II

I had a feeling in March of 2019 that one column might not cover everything I don’t understand.  It’s looking now as if two columns won’t be enough.  I’ve been making notes and the list is steadily growing.  I used to think that kind of list would get shorter as I matured, but it hasn’t worked that way.  Age has unexpectedly brought an increased awareness of how little I know.

Defining what we know can be a nebulous thing.  My father told me a story about a man who drove to an unfamiliar town to attend a meeting.  As he neared downtown, he pulled his car over and asked a young boy on the sidewalk if he could tell him how to get to the courthouse.  The little fellow shook his head and said, “No sir.  I don’t know where it is.”

The man had been given directions that referenced a couple of landmarks.  He asked the youngster if he knew how to get to the Baptist church or the local drugstore.  Each time the boy said, “No sir.  I don’t know.”  The man was befuddled at such a lack of knowledge and asked, “Son, is there anything that you do know?”  The little boy didn’t hesitate.  “Yes sir!” he said. “I know I ain’t lost.”

There’s a lot about grammar and language that makes me feel lost.  I get confused on who and whom. A good example is on page 42 of my Third Edition (1971 Copyright) Practical English Handbook purchased from Valdosta State College.  It notes that for speech it’s proper to say, “Who were you talking to over there?”  But for writing it should be, “Whom were you talking to over there?”

What if you write out your speech?  Do you write whom on your paper but then try to remember when standing at the podium to say who?  When Ernest Hemingway wrote “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” there’s no doubt he used the right word.  But most of the time who sounds better than whom and seems less pretentious to me.  It’s generally desirable to be named in a “Who’s Who” publication, but it would be embarrassing to be named in “Whom’s Whom.”  It’s just not right.

There has probably been an update to that Practical English Handbook, but according to the sticker I paid $4.45 so I plan to keep using it.  The bookstore won’t give me a refund without a receipt.

Commas have always confused me, but there was a time long ago in a faraway land when I thought I almost knew what I was doing.  I’ve looked online at several sources and finally found one whose guidance I heartily embrace.  It gave concise rules for appropriate comma usage, then summarized by saying if you feel like you need a comma just put one there.  So, if you notice some extra commas or you think a comma is missing you may be correct.  Try reading the passage aloud.  If not completely satisfied, please feel free to insert or delete commas to suit your preference.

Homonyms and all their relatives should be prohibited by law.  There’s a feature on my word processor called “Read Aloud” where a fellow with a very pleasant voice will recite exactly what I’ve typed.  I call him Ragman, for Read Aloud Guy. He does a great job and apparently doesn’t require much sleep.  I’ve clicked on his icon at all hours and he responds immediately without complaint. 

One thing Ragman has trouble with though are words like “read.”  He sometimes gets the pronunciation of the future tense and the past tense mixed up.  I believe we need a distinctive spelling for every word, such as, “I have rhed the book.”  We have enough letters and potential combinations to resolve this troubling issue.

The Society of American Phonetic Spellers, SOAPS, has identified homonym issues as the focus of their 2020 legislative agenda.  It’s an election year, so I have no doubt plenty of candidates will pledge their support.  My unbridled optimism for political solutions is tempered only by reality.      

There’s a lot more about grammar and language that I don’t understand.  I’m just thankful to be like that little boy who knew he wasn’t lost.  But if I were lost, to who or whom would I go for directions?  I think it depends on whether I ask orally or in writing.  It’s probably easier to just circle the block and pray like I’ve always done.

I usually manage to find where I want to go, and I try not to lose sight of the road that will take me back home.  At times I may be a little confused, but like that young lad, “I know I ain’t lost.”

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Two Dogs and a Boy

Seth is our middle child.  He was born between his sisters, Erin and Carrie, during a three-for-one delivery special that ran for six minutes. That was December 22, 1978, so it’s a stretch to refer to him now as a boy.  The use of childhood monikers, however, is a perpetual right of parenthood.

Boy was not a pet name, but sometimes I employed it during conversations with his mother.  When thunder rattled our windows or winds fiercely howled, I could not resist quoting from old westerns.  “There’s a storm brewing Ma.  You and the boy best get in the cellar.” So, boy was never a nickname for Seth, but “Two Dogs and a Son” sounded odd for a title. 

When he was growing up, I rotated between Seth, Bubba, and Son.  Son was what I called him when I wanted to emphasize a point, as in what type of screwdriver I needed.  He was probably seven or eight when I sent him on a mission from our den to the laundry room, where our toolbox was kept.

I was trying to connect a home-movie video player to our television one day.  TVs in the 1980s weighed more than today’s subcompact cars.  I had the heavy TV awkwardly balanced as I reached around back to connect the cables.  That’s when I realized I was holding the wrong screwdriver.

Seth was nearby, so I sent him to the laundry room with detailed instructions.  I told him to look in the red toolbox and find a small Phillips head screwdriver.  “I need a Phillips head,” I emphasized, “not a flathead like this one – a Phillips head.  It’s the one with the star shaped end.” 

He said he understood, left the room, then quickly returned. In his extended hand was a huge flathead screwdriver. “Son!” I said with exasperation, pausing for a moment to gather my thoughts.  Before I said more, he grinned and handed me a perfectly sized Phillips from behind his back.

As we laughed together at his prank the TV didn’t seem nearly as heavy.  He had ended the ruse quickly, explaining he didn’t want to hear the lecture he knew was coming.  It was not one of life’s defining moments, but little memories can accumulate into bigger stories.

Seth moved to Los Angeles in January 2008.  Twelve years later, in April of 2020, he let us know he was thinking about coming back to Georgia.  We were delighted and invited him to live with us for a while.  Jane and I were overwhelmed with joy when he said he would. Then we heard the faint bark of a small dog in the background, and I remembered the screwdriver he once held behind his back.

My wife and I have loved several yard dogs, but our wedding vows stated that no canine would ever live in our house.  Louise, however, scampered through the loophole of love. She’s a deerhead chihuahua with a sweet disposition who is content in the lap of anyone who will hold her.  She was wandering the streets of LA when Seth took her in.  Jane and I are both glad that he did.

A few days before Seth left California in a rental van, he texted and asked if we still had the fenced area in the backyard.  That’s when we learned about Dude, a 67-pound mongrel.  His DNA shows markers of seven known breeds, 12 of indeterminate origin, and traces of brown bear or wolverine.  UPS brings dog food every morning.  FedEx comes in the afternoon.

Dude was homeless before serving time in the pound.  He was released twice on probation but quickly returned to the slammer.  The jailer told Seth that Dude was running out of options, so that’s how a monstrous dog ended up living with the boy in California before migrating to Georgia.

Dude has climbed our fence nine times but hasn’t run away.  He’s doesn’t try to escape. He just stares through the glass door as he wonders how Louise managed to get inside.  Dude only scales the fence when he thinks we can’t see him, then he pretends he doesn’t know what happened.  Yet even with his incorrigible ways, he’s already found the soft spot for canines in our hearts. 

Two dogs and a boy left California.  Two pets and a son came home.  Despite all the problems our world is facing, life now seems a little sweeter to Jane and me.  There’s one thing the boy’s mother and I hope he understands and will always know with certainty.  If he sees a stray dog in need of a good family, we want him to take that dog straight to the Flint Humane Society.      

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Plums at Johnny Lane’s

New leaves on clusters of roadside bushes tell me each spring that plums will soon appear.  I know to check them often as plums quickly reach the perfect stage. They are best before fully ripened into solid reds. Their flavor is delightfully pungent when the light green fruit has partially transitioned to pale shades of pink and yellow.

During my childhood, my father and I always looked forward to plum season. There were several groups of volunteer orchards scattered around our farming community. The overlapping bushes were tightly bunched between dirt road ditches and fields of cotton, peanuts, or corn. 

Daddy kept a saltshaker on the dash of his pickup truck when plum season came. We’d make a couple of intentional trips to bushes we’d been to before. At other times we’d just stop wherever we happened to notice plums by the road.

We’d shake salt into one hand, pick plums with the other, and eat until we were too full to hold any more. Daddy called it having a “bate of plums.”  Bate may have been a colloquialism or perhaps a Dooly County word.  I haven’t heard it in a long time and I’m not sure if anyone besides Daddy ever used it. A bate of plums meant that you ate all you wanted then had a few more for good measure.

Occasionally we picked a small paper bag of plums for later, but mostly we enjoyed them fresh off the bushes. We froze a bag of plums once, but when we later thawed them, they were mushy. Some things are meant to be saved, while others should be savored in the moment. 

Sometimes we’d be disappointed to learn we had stopped at hog plum bushes. I don’t know if that’s the real name, but it’s what we called the slightly smaller plums that were rather bitter. I guess they were only fit for hogs and probably weren’t their first choice. They looked inviting through the open windows of Daddy’s truck, but a close-up view could show us what distance had hidden.  

Our favorite wild plums were near Johnny Lane’s home. Mr. Johnny was an elderly black man who lived alone in an ancient unpainted frame house with an open well. He was a small framed man with a slightly stooped body and a perpetual smile. His home had electricity, but he hardly needed a meter. Low watt light bulbs dangled on single cords in three sparsely furnished rooms.

I don’t know what Johnny Lane did for a living. He was well past retirement age when I was a young child. Farm work would be my guess because he lived in the country.      

Mr. Johnny would occasionally join us at the plum bushes.  At other times we’d visit on his front porch.  And once we went inside and stayed for a while.  Daddy asked him politely if he minded showing me his home, already knowing we would be welcome.

Daddy sometimes did things without explaining why. I guess he knew that somewhere down the road it would mean more to me when I figured it out. I think that’s why we spent time one day seated on wooden straight chairs in Johnny Lane’s sparsely furnished home.

Mr. Johnny didn’t have much in the way of material goods. I don’t remember ever seeing a vehicle in his yard, and the shotgun house he lived in was more weathered than he was. But the bare wood floors were as clean as a whistle. And Mr. Johnny was, as always, a gracious host.

I can’t recall anything Mr. Johnny ever said to me, and I don’t know that it matters. His life was unremarkable by many standards. There aren’t many people left who remember him or have much reason to. But when I travel the dirt road by the place where he lived, I’m warmly reminded of a man with a gentle spirit, a kind-hearted soul who had almost nothing yet seemed content with what he had.  

Johnny Lane died years ago. His house is long gone and there’s not a plum bush on the place. I doubt there’s a photograph of him on anyone’s mantle, but it’s easy to picture him standing on his front porch smiling as we ate a bate of plums. 

It may seem odd and perhaps it is, but I love recalling those times of having plums with Daddy at Johnny Lane’s. And I’m thankful for that day we went inside.  Lessons don’t always need explanations.      

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Gravity and Apples

Gravity has begun taking a noticeable toll on my body.  My chest is sliding southward toward a gradually expanding support system.  Taking a deep breath can disguise the situation, but I can only hold that pose for 43 seconds.  That’s not a guess.  I timed it.  

I’m having a recurring nightmare where I’ve transitioned into an old man from Michigan walking on the beach in Jacksonville, Florida.  Their distinct look during my childhood vacations was perhaps not unique to that fine state, but the car tags at The Seahorse Motel showed Michigan had a clear lead.

It was easy to spot the aged men as they ambled along the Atlantic Ocean with their wives.  They wore baggy plaid Bermuda shorts well above their rounded stomachs.  Wide leather belts were just for looks, as there was no way the shorts could slip down.  Skinny stark-white legs poked out from loosely fitted openings but were only exposed for a few inches.  Black high-top dress socks covered everything between their upper shins down to their wingtip shoes.

I could distinguish them from a distance with their unbuttoned collared shirts.  Their hairy gray chests jiggled with every step.  I tried to look away but sometimes couldn’t.  Now in my dreams I frantically check the license plate on my truck to make sure I’m still living in Georgia.  

We sometimes see things we can’t forget, but there’s often a lesson if we want one.  It’s those haunting memories of sagging bodies of Michigan’s old men which has inspired me to substitute apples for ice cream this summer.  My plan has not worked as well as I expected.  Making that switch twice a week has been rather ineffective so far.   A friend of mine says a change in diet works best when supplemented with exercise, but I’m getting a second opinion.      

I’ve heard that apple peelings have vitamins but that’s not how I prefer to eat them.  That’s partly due to watching Sheriff Andy Taylor peeling apples on his front porch as Barney admired his technique.  Andy kept the peeling in one long piece and Barney was delighted when offered a turn.  Sometimes I peel them that same way just to give a nod to my long-ago friends from Mayberry.   

We had a couple of apple trees in the yard of our rural Dooly County home.  They didn’t produce much fruit, but there were always a few apples to eat.  We would pick one or two each day during the season, plucking them a little green before the worms beat us to them.  

I guess the threat of worms is why even today I prefer apples and other fruit to be a little on the green side.  We like what we get used to or maybe we get used to what we like.  Either way I only want fruit while it’s firm, well before any suspicious softness.

My father told me something about apples one day that I think about on occasion.  It was a Mayberry kind of scene that you won’t find on TV shows made today.

Daddy and I picked a couple of apples from the tree one afternoon for a snack.  We wiped them on our dirty shirts, which accomplished very little but was standard protocol.  He took a big bite, which I tried to match, then he stared rather curiously at the apple in his hand.  That’s when he posed a question I won’t ever forget.  

“Do you know what’s worse than finding a worm in an apple?” he asked.

“No sir,” I responded.  “What is it?”

“Finding half a worm,” he said.

We laughed as Daddy took another bite.  I borrowed his Barlow and peeled the rest of my apple in one long piece.

It’s too late to apologize to the rotund men who strolled the beaches of my childhood.  But if I could, I would tell them I now understand they were fighting a battle against gravity that’s almost impossible to win.  And with all my heart I wish they could know, I’m sorry I ever snickered. 

Happy Father’s Day to all, and God bless.   

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Driftwood

Jane and I enjoy looking for driftwood, especially the seasoned pieces we occasionally find in the shallows of a spring fed stream.  The searches of many years have only resulted in a few items I consider exceptional.  Each of them was intricately honed and well preserved by the constant flow of clear water.

My favorite piece is just over a foot long and sits on a shelf above my desk.  It’s open on one end, gently hollowed over a long period of time.  The opening is about four inches wide and gradually narrows into a small solid point, a perfect vase for the three hawk feathers it holds.

That driftwood is in good company.  Squeezed between family photos on three shelves are a couple dozen assorted bottles.  None of them have significant value.  I doubt a collector would pay fifty dollars for the whole bunch, but it doesn’t matter because they’re not for sale.

Some came from our family farm, rescued mostly by my mother.  Others were found during my walks with Jane while exploring in the woods.  In the days before county landfills were established, bottles and cans were left beside forested trails.  Maybe that wasn’t the best choice, but none of the options were ideal.

Most of the bottles we find now are broken, common, or generally unremarkable.  Once in a blue moon, however, there’s something that rewards us enough we are inspired to keep looking.

I found a small ceramic vase last year when my brother, Jimmy, and I were cleaning up an old trash pile in the woods.  We hauled out a pickup load of discarded jars and cans.  Hidden in layers of mostly useless junk was a small ceramic vase my wife was delighted for me to bring home.

It’s not spectacular by any means, and a tiny chip renders it imperfect.   But what it lacks in perfection it makes up for in character.  I don’t understand why it was thrown away.  I only know that once it was lost but now it’s found.

The shelves above my desk hold a dozen brown jars of various shapes.  Some were originally bought empty, then repeatedly filled during long ago summers with vegetables from country gardens.  Others came with snuff, vanilla extract, or assorted medicines.

One bottle, I believe, contained Merthiolate.  That dreaded orange liquid, widely scorned by children, was liberally applied by mothers of old to burn away infections from serious wounds.  Smaller lesions were treated with Mercurochrome, which had the same orange color without the scorching pain.

If a cut was too deep to hide, the only sane solution was to slip into the house and coat the wound heavily with Mercurochrome, while leaving the Merthiolate bottle by the sink.  That plan works best if you blow on the wound and make grimacing sounds as you beg, “Please let me wash it off!  It’s burning me up!”

I have some clear bottles of various description, plus three tiny green ones I heavily favor.  They came from Joiner’s Store, a small country store that my grandfather opened in 1902.  One has a label showing it’s “GENUINE HAARLEM OIL.”  They each hold two fluid ounces of a turpentine-linseed oil mixture.  A little bit apparently goes a long way, but I’ll never know for sure.  Some bottles are best left unopened.

My plan was to write about collecting driftwood, but I got sidetracked while looking on my shelves.  Finding mantle-worthy pieces of tree remnants brings me great satisfaction.  I find comfort in knowing such artful beauty is created simply by man not interfering with nature.  But old bottles can also be quite charming.  While driftwood is slowly caressed and shaped, bottles are formed by the intentional melting of sand.  One process is subtle while the other is overt.

It’s not so different with people, I suppose.  Sometimes we’re gently polished by the cool flow of a stream.  At other times we’re abruptly refined by a blistering furnace.  One way is far more pleasant, but there’s purpose and value in both.

Hunting for driftwood on leisurely strolls with my wife is delightful, but it’s also rewarding to search for uncommon bottles and small lovely vases by digging through piles of rubbish.  The walks are more pleasant than the digging, but there’s purpose and value in both.     

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Hummingbirds

My neighbor and longtime friend, Dewel Lawrence, sent me an email in early May about hummingbirds.  He had been watching a backyard feeder which his wife, Becky, had filled with sugar water.  The earlier spring menu included nectar filled blooms of red and white azaleas on the banks of a lovely pond.  Their big yard is like a buffet line in hummingbird heaven.     

During this troubling coronavirus pandemic, Dewel found inspiration through the hardiness of those tiny birds.  He said hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and Central America, then travel 500 miles north as they return to their hatching sites.  I don’t understand how a thumb-sized bird as light as a penny can do that.  Miraculous is a word that seems appropriate.    

Seeing those hummingbirds reminded Dewel of what Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-34.  Jesus assured his followers there’s no need to worry.  In verses 26-27 (NIV) he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

It’s funny how the mention of something can uncover almost buried memories.  As I read Dewel’s email it took me back to childhood, to the home where my mother’s parents lived in Pulaski County.  Grandmama Hill loved to host big family dinners and we all loved being there.  We often visited in the gray wooden rocking chairs on their screened porch which had azaleas on three sides.

Grandmama had a lot of azaleas, several crepe myrtles, and a grancy greybeard, the only one I knew of at the time.  Nothing but a dirt driveway separated her porch from an enchanting head of woods with a spring-fed stream.  It was a popular venue for hummingbirds’ summer vacations.

As I would watch those birds from her porch it amazed me how fast they beat their wings, how they darted, hovered, and even flew backwards.  Billions of dollars have been spent developing today’s magnificent assortment of flying machines.  Yet man’s technology is no match for the hummingbird.  Creation in all its glory can never equal the Creator.

As I reflected on the marvels of hummingbirds, another occasion from long ago came to mind.  Jane and I, plus our three children, were living on DeLiesseline Drive in Vienna.  Our backyard swimming pool was enclosed by a fence which was covered in red honeysuckle and Carolina Jasmine.  We were rewarded each spring for planting those flowering vines by the visits of countless hummingbirds.

One family member, however, treated those little birds rather poorly.  Our solid white cat, Sugar, spent hours patiently stalking her prey.  We’d distract her or squirt her with the water hose when possible.  She had minimal success in her hunts for which we were glad.

But there was one memorable day when a hummingbird hovered too low for too long.  When I tried to approach, Sugar scampered away with the bird held firmly in her mouth.  I felt sorry for the helpless creature, but I knew not to blame Sugar.  She was just doing what cats are born to do.  I gave her a light scolding and suggested she might find blue jays more filling.

Cats don’t usually kill their prey humanely.  It’s more about the game than the meal.  They wound their victims enough to slow them down, then release the poor things so they can enjoy capturing them again.  That’s what Sugar did with that hummingbird.  I watched helplessly as she held that bird in her mouth, then dropped its motionless body on the ground between her paws.  She poked it lightly, hoping it would try to escape, but the bird showed no sign of life.  Then in a moment which surprised Sugar as much as me, that tiny hummingbird flitted its wings and soared to safety.

I don’t know if God intervenes in matters of that sort.  I used to think that wasn’t the case, but now I’m not so sure.  What I do know is that a friend’s email reminded me of a hummingbird that survived what seemed a hopeless situation.  The timing of his reminder is a blessing which I consider divine.

Jesus said there’s no need to worry, that our heavenly Father who provides for the birds will surely take care of His children.  I can’t truthfully claim I never worry, but I can say with gratitude that my worries are tempered by faith.  For my faith is in a loving Creator, because I know I am His child.        

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Shallow Roots

The most beautiful place in the world is in the edge of Pulaski County, just across the Dooly-Pulaski line.  I’ll admit I’m highly prejudiced.  My fondness of those mystical woods is greatly enhanced by time’s perpetual sweetening of childhood memories.

A small stream has been continuously flowing since long before I was born. The springhead which feeds it is just beyond the backyard of the house my mother grew up in.

That little spring only yields a few gallons of water per minute, but faithfully stays on the job.  What it lacks in power it makes up for in reliability.  When my mother was a child, a ram pump provided a constant trickle of cool water from the spring to their house. 

Positioned downhill from the springhead, the ram was powered by the slight force of gravity and running water.  A tiny amount of the spring’s flow was captured by the ram’s propeller and piped to the kitchen sink where it slowly collected in pots, pans, and jugs.  The overflow drained back outside into a vat, saving water which could be used for livestock, laundry, and other needs.  That ram provided a rare convenience in the 1930s when most country folks drew tin pails from open wells with ropes.

The ram hasn’t worked in ages, but we still have its cast iron housing.  It’s always intrigued me that my grandparents had running water before they had electricity.  Maybe someday I’ll get the ram repaired and pump water from the spring again.  If not, it’s okay if someone takes it to a place that buys scrap iron.  That’s probably where its destined to go, but I’m not inclined to be the chauffeur.     

Woods below the spring were my favorite venue for childhood excursions.  Smooth white bark on giant sycamore trees held romantic tidbits of family history.  The one I remember best is “JH + KH,” written in the usual fashion with one letter in each quadrant of the plus sign.

Jack and Emmett Holland were my mother’s older siblings.  Uncle Jack married Katherine Holder, so there wasn’t any mystery as to whose initials those were.  I guess Aunt Katherine knew about that tree.  Perhaps she was with Uncle Jack when he penned their short love story with his knife.  I was too young to think about asking things I’d now like to know. 

I carved my initials on another sycamore when I was a kid.  There was no need for a plus sign.  It was just me at the time.  Not too many years ago I found my youthful inscription.  And I could still read, though barely, the one left much earlier by Uncle Jack.  The well-defined letters of long ago are almost gone, faded and stretched by a slowly expanding canvas of bark.

Those woods were a perfect place for boyhood adventures with my friend, Carl Shurley, who lived near my grandparents.  There were always minnows and water bugs to chase, plus an occasional perch darting for cover in the clear shallow water.    

We’d jump across the narrow stream, not caring if we fell in unless it was time for dinner.  And whether we were thirsty or not we’d crouch for a sip of water while watching for moccasins or ruthless two-legged critters like Tarzan did in the 1950s. 

Jane and I took a walk in those woods in March and discovered that several big hardwoods, including a massive hickory, had been toppled by a storm.  The once stately trees had been quite healthy until they were overwhelmed by wind and rain.  Open holes from displaced root systems told us why.  The soil beneath those trees was heavily punctuated with large rocks.  The roots of those trees had grown deep enough for fair weather, but they were too shallow for a storm.

It was troubling to see once towering trees lying flat on the ground, but it reminded me of what Jesus said about the importance of planting seed in good soil. (Matthew 13:1-23) He told that story much better than I can, so I won’t repeat it.  I’ll just invite you to read it if you will.   

We’re living in challenging times.  A virus we’d never heard of until recently has wreaked havoc around the globe and there’s no end in sight.  I don’t know the solution to COVID-19 or other horrendous pandemics, but I do know a truth that’s of lasting value.  Good soil is vital, because shallow roots won’t hold up in a storm.

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Bucket List

I recently visited with someone I had not seen in almost 50 years.  We met at Valdosta State College in the early 1970s, but she was only there a short time.  That was the last contact I had with her, yet our friendship was memorable enough to easily pick up where we left off.

Please understand this is not a story about romance.  We did once go on a date together, but not with each other.  She went with Jim, and I was with her friend Latrelle.  And we danced until almost midnight even though three of us were Baptists.

The element of romance probably doesn’t matter to either of my regular readers, but I felt compelled to address it.  The Vice-President of the Proof Department at Joiner’s Corner has made two old-fashioned chocolate pies lately at my request.  I don’t want to jeopardize prospects of having more of that spectacular pudding topped with meringue so light it defies gravity.

My friend, Becky, and I filled in some blanks while sipping hot tea on a rainy afternoon at Lake Blackshear.  After covering the present, we took a nice stroll down memory lane.  Virtual tours of the past are not a bad option at this point in life.  Memories often grow sweeter with the passing of time.  Then she posed a question which I’ve never spent much time thinking about.

“What’s on your bucket list?” she asked, her query taking me by surprise.

“I don’t really have a bucket list,” I answered.  “I’m not even sure how many buckets we have.  My guess is seven or maybe eight, but it’s never crossed my mind that I should make a list of them.”

Her disarming smile was unchanged from decades earlier, a sign I interpreted as an indication I should continue.

“Our buckets are mostly white or yellow.  We had a brown one, but it finally got so many cracks in it we threw it away.  Most of our buckets originally contained hydraulic fluid or chemicals used on our farm.  There’s only one I know of that had waited emptily on a store shelf until we purchased it.

“The bucket we bought came from Survivors Bait & Tackle on St. George Island.  When our family was there on vacation last summer, I bought some shrimp for our grandchildren to fish with.  I didn’t have a container to carry them in, so I weighed the options of a small Styrofoam minnow bucket or a five-gallon plastic one.  I figured the bigger bucket would be more useful at home.

“Jane uses that bucket when she picks up pinecones.  We’ve gotten our money’s worth already and it could easily last another ten years.  Plastic buckets are quite durable if they’re taken care of.  Jane loves working in the yard and I try to make sure she has good equipment.

“We also have a couple of small metal buckets that probably hold two gallons or so, but that’s just a guess.  One of them came as a door-prize at an annual meeting of Middle Georgia Electric Membership Corporation.  It’s a nice bucket that certainly deserves to be included on a list.  I don’t remember where the other one came from unless it was a beach trip, but that’s highly speculative.”

Before wrapping up this column, I need to disclose I have taken considerable liberties with the truth.  As I began writing it seemed potentially amusing to answer Becky’s question in a different manner than expected.  I hope you agree, but either way, here’s a condensed version of what really happened.

When Becky asked what was on my bucket list, I told her the first thing that came to mind.  “I’d like to write something that makes a difference,” I said.  “It doesn’t matter if I’m famous for it, or if I make any money with it, but I’d love to know I’ve written something worthwhile.”

“You’re already doing that,” she responded with warm affirmation.  I know my friend is sincere, and I hope she’s right, at least some of the time.  Her question led me to do some soul searching, and I’m offering you that same opportunity: What’s on your bucket list?  Is it worthwhile?

I hope today’s column was worth your time.  I’ll try again next week if you’ll let me.  If I stop writing these stories my daily routine will no doubt take a troublesome turn.  Pinecones are steadily falling like gentle spring rains, and I’ve said far too much to hide the other buckets.

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Eutychus

The story of a young man named Eutychus is found in Acts 20:7-12.  He was seated in the opening of an upstairs window as he listened to the Apostle Paul.  Paul was planning to leave town the next day, so he kept preaching until midnight.

I’m not sure at what point Eutychus drifted off to sleep, but I’ll bet his pals were amused as they watched his eyes grow heavy.  Eutychus wouldn’t have attracted much attention, except he fell backwards from a three-story room and died when he hit the ground.  Thankfully, Paul was used by God to intervene and Eutychus’ life was restored in a miraculous way.

It’s a given that everyone present was alarmed by Eutychus’ fall, shocked by his death, and amazed by his second chance at life.  After things settled down Paul broke bread then continued talking until daylight.  Scripture doesn’t say, but I’m certain Eutychus stayed awake the rest of the time.

There’s a smiley face in my Bible by those verses that I drew at some point when I made a notation: “Sleeping in church is a longtime problem.”  I imagine Eutychus still gets some good-natured teasing about that episode.  I don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, but I have no doubt that laughter will be common.

Eutychus’ story reminds me of a Sunday night service at Harmony Baptist Church during my childhood.  I was sitting with my cousin, David Dunaway, and his older brother, Larry.

Larry must have stayed up late the night before.  David and I were tickled as we watched Larry’s predictable path toward slumber.  We were hoping for some free entertainment, maybe a head jerk or a forward slump noticeable enough the preacher might call his name.  Much to our chagrin Larry remained upright although his eyes were fully sealed.  That’s when David had a moment of inspiration.

David opened a green Broadman Hymnal to number 162, “Just As I Am.”  He put the hymn book in front of Larry and whispered with urgency, “Stand up!  We’re singing!”  Larry popped up from that pew like sliced bread being sprung from a toaster, but he quickly noticed he was standing alone.  That’s when he gave David a “you just wait until we get home” kind of look that I still vividly remember.

At Vienna First Baptist, where I’ve been a member since 1976, Mr. Emmett Stephens was our champion pew sleeper for decades.  In today’s congregation Frank Hulsey would give him some competition, but back in the 1970s Mr. Emmett was without peer in competitive dozing.  Like my cousin, Larry, and my friend, Frank, Mr. Emmett had a gift for napping without drawing attention.

JW Wallis was the pastor at Vienna First when Jane and I became members.  He didn’t fret over his much older friend Emmett nodding off during the service, and Mr. Emmett was very appreciative of his young pastor.  He told JW that he had slept through the sermons of other preachers, but assured him, “I’ve never slept as soundly as when you preach.”

One late night at home Mr. Emmett listened in frustration to the ticking of the clock by his bed.  He was quietly miserable for a while, then finally spoke softly to his wife.  “Christine, are you awake?”

“I am now,” she answered.  “What is it Emmett?”

“I’m having trouble going to sleep,” he told her.  “How about calling JW and see if he’ll read me a little bit of one of his sermons.”

JW and others of us from that era still enjoy revisiting that memory.  It’s a funny account of a man who sometimes slept better in church than he did at home.  But within that humorous framework is a reminder that pastors need more than members.  They also need friends.  JW didn’t worry about Mr. Emmett sleeping on Sunday mornings.  He knew he could count on him the rest of the week.

I’m sure Mr. Emmett and Eutychus have swapped stories by now, and he’s no doubt looking forward to introducing Eutychus to JW somewhere down the road.  I can almost hear him saying, “Eutychus, this is the fella’ I’ve been telling you about that used to put me under.”

When Eutychus stops chuckling Mr. Emmett will likely be serious for a moment and share how much JW means to him.  “But Eutychus,” he’ll probably add, “if you’re ever in a service when JW is preaching, I’d suggest you keep a good distance away from any open windows.”

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Burning Wet Leaves

I’m old enough to know better but I did it anyway.  I spent most of the last Saturday in March trying to burn a pile of wet leaves.  They looked dry on top, but sometimes I forget that what we see is not always what we get.  Beneath the surface is what’s most important.

My long day of spreading layers of leaves to keep the fire going reminded me of an old television ad.  It ran on Macon’s WMAZ Channel 13 during my 1950s childhood.  I couldn’t find the advertisement using a Google search, so I may not be telling this exactly right.  I’m not giving my usual guarantee of at least 50 percent accuracy.

Two middle aged local men were featured touting a brand of bacon, which I’m guessing was packaged in Central Georgia.  According to one of the fellows this exceptional bacon wouldn’t burn.  The other man, however, kept forgetting that unique characteristic.  The first gentleman feigned frustration towards his rather hapless friend.  “He’ll never learn!” he said, while shaking his head.  Just afterward, or maybe it was just before, he’d add with excitement, “Southern Maid No-burn Bacon – It will not burn.”

We have a big yard with a lot of trees.  Jane normally mows over the leaves with mulching blades, but her mower was in Russ Bowden’s Infirmary this past leaf season.  It needed some major work, so I came up with a brilliant idea of blowing the leaves into piles.  To make loading easier, I made a leaf sled.  There’s no patent pending.  You are welcome to follow the detailed instructions below and build your own.

I took a 12 by 16 blue polyethylene tarpaulin and ran a small cord through the grommets all the way around.  We raked the leaves onto the tarp, draped the cord over the bumper hitch on my truck, then drug it 100 yards to our brush pile.  I flipped it over to unload, then returned to our yard and repeated that process until the truck ran low on gas.

If I can pause here for a moment on a sidebar to the story, I’d like to say I’m not totally convinced tarpaulin is spelled correctly.  I’ve always pronounced it tar-po-le-on, four syllables with an accent on po.  I’m relying on Spell Check but hoping it’s wrong.  Tarpoleon may not be a real word, but in my opinion it should be.  Say it aloud a few times and I think you’ll agree it sounds better.

Those leaves covered an area bigger than downtown Findley and were several feet deep.  They had been soaked by winter rains which set a record on Coley Crossing.  The top three inches of that pile burned like wildfire.  It went, “faster than a Seville second,” as Marian Bowen would say.  But the bottom three feet or so wouldn’t cooperate.

I should have looked beneath the surface before I struck the match, but the dry top and delightful weather was too tempting.  It was a beautiful spring day with a perfect breeze, enough wind to scatter the smoke without floating tiny cinders to parts unknown.

It was around nine a.m. when I called for my burn permit.  I expected to be through before lunch, or at least well before sundown as required by regulation.  The flames died out before the deadline, but the leaves were still smoldering Sunday morning.

Our former next-door neighbor, the late Mrs. Lorena Morgan, worked in her yard almost daily.  She piled leaves and limbs into a wheelbarrow and burned them every few days.  The smoke finally got to her though.  She walked to the ambulance that took her to the hospital where she soon died at 102.

While burning those leaves, I was reminded of Miss Lorena.  She was a sweet, soft-spoken lady who loved taking care of her flowers and grounds.  If heaven offers a neighborhood channel, I hope she was watching me.  I know what she’d be thinking but would be too kind to state.  “He’ll never learn.”

I say that because I believe this is the second time I’ve made the same mistake.  The slow burning of wet leaves seemed oddly familiar.  As the great Yogi Berra would have said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Hopefully I won’t soon forget a lesson I sometimes ignore.  The top layer of anything seldom tells the whole story.  But if we look beneath the surface, we’ll find what’s most important.

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