adventures


12
Jan 22

Let’s read century-old newsprint

I woke up, because a bit of daylight was peering through the blackout curtains, 73 minutes later than I’d intended. My phone battery died overnight. No phone, no alarm. And despite making it out of the house — showered and shaved, in 15 minutes, and on time for my first appointment of the day — I could not shake that unsettled feeling. Despite that, it was a lovely day.

It got into the mid-40s here today. Positively chamber of commerce stuff.

I gave a tour this morning, reasserting once again that I would have never enjoyed being a tour guide. And yet. Then I did a little text work, then a little video work. That was the day, flying by as they do, except for the slow parts.

He said, after rethinking the parts of the day not worth writing about here.

Let’s look at some newspapers. This is what was was going on 100 years ago in the town where all of my family lives. Not my hometown, mind you. I’m not sure, anymore, if I have one of those. People talk about a hometown as the place where you were born, or where you grew up or where you live. I’m not in the one I’d prefer, and the rest hardly apply. And though I never lived in this part of north Alabama, all of my family is from around this area. And most of our ancestors were there when this paper was published a century ago.

Ain’t that something?

Read this over breakfast.

You wonder what led up to that over the previous year.

Earl Dean was convicted in April, and sentenced to life. He was paroled a decade later. Dean died in 1951. His sister, the wife of the well-known William McCarley, died at 81, in 1966. She never remarried. The McCarleys had five kids, the last born just after the murder. He passed away, aged 75, in 1996.

There’s still a Wofford Oil Company, but I believe it is a different concern. As for that gas station?

Long gone.

Also, why is the paper telling me about yesterday’s weather? Sure, it was cold and wet yesterday. We lived it.

Will build new church.

The First Methodist Church opened in a log house in 1822. Their third church got them to their current site, in 1827. Two versions later they had a brick building, which burned in 1920, so just before this newspaper. The new church went up on the same spot in 1924 and was renovated a few decades later. No one calls it the new church anymore.

I just wrote about the dam in this space recently. I told you the river and the dam and the TVA figured into everything. In the 1921 paper the writers were discussing its future. ‘Would the government keep the dam project up? And just look at how this dam thing has insulated us from the doldrums some other parts of the country are experiencing. We sure would like it if this continued.’ It’s easy to get the sense that they knew this was their path to prosperity and maybe a touch of that modernization that people talked about, the better parts of it, anyway. Also, there were sad tales like this.

He was one of 56 people who died during the dam’s construction. I know many of the family names on that plaque.

Finally, my grandfather smoked Camels, right up until the day the doctors told him another cigarette would kill him. So my grandmother made him quit. I can still picture, though, the coloring of the package, and the crinkling of the cellophane. No matter what this ad copy says, I can still imagine that god awful “cigaretty odor.”

After my grandfather stopped, my grandmother would go outside and sneak a Raleigh every now and then. That was her brand, and I never understood the distinction. They both smelled terrible to me. And there was a lot of that in their house.

My grandmother was a lovely hostess, though, the archetype grandmother. She always made sure to send me home with food or a plant or a toy, and a suitcase full of clean clothes.

The first thing we did when I got home was put all of those clean clothes go in the washer again. The smoke smells were baked in. It’s hard to imagine these days how ubiquitous that was, and not so long ago. How we were just … used to it. Sorta like cigarette ads in a newspaper.

We had lunch today at Chick-fil-A, which is to say we ordered it via the app and got the parking lot delivery and drove to a neighboring parking lot to enjoy our sandwiches. We parked in the lot of the now defunct K-Mart. It closed in 2016 and is presently being demolished to make way for apartments. The view from that parking lot is the Target parking lot just across the street. There were perhaps fewer cars there today than at any time during the pandemic. (Both locally, and across this state, we’re setting all sorts of pandemic records right now.)

This is our usual lunch date, once a week. While we’re there, I like to imagine we’re sitting over a broad, lazy creek. Today the mental image was enough to make me overlook this little message on the back of the cup.

And that’s true enough. So keep it up, won’t you please?


5
Jan 22

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes …

We got a text in the pre-dawn hours this weekend, the sort that comes with a sting and a great ache created by a newly formed hollow place.

Our friend Brian’s father passed away. He’d been fighting some heart-related problems and things were starting to improve until, suddenly, the doctors and nurses had to say they’d done all they can do. It’s just terrible.

Tom was a husband, a grandpa and a father. He is the father of one of the most steadfast men I know. Brian and I worked together for four-and-a-half years. Everyone called us office spouses. We shared a cubicle, mostly because I didn’t drive him crazy. I only didn’t drive him crazy because I admired him so much.

And that was the guy at work. Away from keyboards and glowing screens, Brian is the person that knows my wife and me as a couple longer than anyone. He delivered the toast at our wedding. He helped us move. Multiple times. For many years, when we lived in the same town, we dined with Brian and his wife, Elizabeth, weekly. We have celebrated countless little successes with them. We have boasted unceasingly about the achievements of their brilliant daughter. We have all held each other and cried in the most unimaginable grief.

Tom and his wife, Janet, who (I’m trying to find a not-clichéd way to say it, but she) is just about a perfect gem of a human being, took us in for no other reason than we were their boy’s friends. It is part of their shared generous spirit to the world beyond their door. A lot of people do that, sure. The McAlisters made it feel like it was just for you, like you were the only lucky people that got added, which was far from the case. Felt like it, though. They met because they were spelunkers, and it worked. They had two sons and their family, official and otherwise, just grew and grew and grew.

Here’s Brian and his dad, Tom, after Brian’s daughter’s birthday party. She was a wee thing then and is a certifiably genius college student today. I don’t have a great frame of reference for father-son moments, but this felt like one, almost 14 years ago, to the day.

It looked important and cool. I didn’t want to intrude.

What’s more, their welcoming spirit was familiar. Felt like part of my family. My grandmother was that same way. Never met a stranger. She ministered with food and laughter. There for most anyone for most anything at most any time. Tom and Janet, always gave off a known sort of kindness. Their easy, unspoken, cherished bosom buddy sort of personality was normal.

One terribly sad year, Brian and Elizabeth decided to not have Thanksgiving. Their son passed away a week before and they needed some time to themselves. Rather than think of them being alone, I invited Tom and Janet, the grieving grandparents, to my grandparents’ for Thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t live that far away and it was the obvious gesture. I don’t recall if I asked my grandmother’s permission to bring people into her home. Probably I did, but I knew she wouldn’t care. These were good people because they were my people and that would have been enough. Besides, that’s what she did. There was never a “Why?” but “How many plates do we need to set out?”

And so Tom and Janet drove over and 10 of us sat around the kitchen table. In the blessing, I prayed for the family that was with us and I prayed for those who were elsewhere. I asked for strength and health for those who needed it and peace and patience and understanding for those seeking it.

Eight days earlier they lost a grandbaby and had to watch their son and daughter-in-law crumble before them. And Tom and Janet were rocks, smoothed and weathered by time and sharpened by experience. They were the great, steady, oaks of the forest. They were the comforting lights in the night. Only they were better than all of that. We don’t have imagery for such an inconceivable thing, really. After one of the services, I wrote about our friends, Tom and Janet, “You don’t know of pain until you see a parent who knows they can’t comfort their child. You don’t know strength – a true strength borne of love – until you see them do it anyway.”

That Thanksgiving, I realized that you don’t know vulnerability, real human rawness, until you’ve seen people unabashedly share their grief in a stranger’s kitchen. I also learned that you don’t know the best stuff of the human spirit until you’ve seen strangers grieve for new friends.

We laughed, too. Everyone told tall tales and we all tried to talk about other things. Tom and Janet, so grateful for a brief evening of normal, stayed a long time. I was proud we could all do that and not at all surprised that they were sent home with food.

I’ve always thought of that as a story about my grandmother. It’s one of my most precious and fondest moments with her, the materfamilias, always teaching the best of her traits by example, always demonstrating that the simple things are the important things. But I’ve come to realize it’s a story about the family I was lucky enough to get, and the family I was wise enough to choose.

I’ve been writing this with teary-eyed emotions, but now comes the hard part.

Four years later, when my grandmother died, Tom and Janet made the drive over again. For just a moment, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated, dear sweet friends covered the unfillable hole.

Since we got that early morning message I’ve thought of little more than how difficult it is to fill such a hole, even temporarily, for the people you love. How I want to do that for my friend Brian, and his mother, Janet, and that lovely family.


3
Jan 22

Remember, it is twenty … twenty-two now

I took last week off from writing here, and now I have to rebuild my audience. Four people must be convinced to return. It will take weeks to establish that sort of trust. But it was worth having a few days away from this particular never-closed tab in my browser.

I hope you took some time away from the routine, as well, even if it meant time away from this site. And I hope you never close this tab on your browser. Just click refresh once a day. You’ll usually be pleasantly surprised.

Anyway, let’s get caught up. How have you been since we were here together last? I hope you had a good Christmas, if you celebrate, and a lot of time with people you care about and doing things you wanted to do, no matter how you mark the 25th.

We woke up on the 24th in Connecticut, to a white Christmas Eve.

The in-laws drove us to the airport, where we said our goodbyes, and headed inside from the cold to a warmer airport. I left my belt at the TSA checkpoint. For a week I’ve been trying to understand how I just … left my belt in that gray tub.

Sorry belt. We had a good run. And, despite my abandoning you, I liked you a great deal. You were starting to show wear, though, and I would have only gotten four or five more years out of you anyway. And now I’ll have to buy another black belt. (Or use one of the other three I found in my bedroom since then.)

We flew into Nashville, which is good, because that was the immediate destination of the plane we boarded, and also the destination for which we’d purchased tickets, and furthermore, where my car was. Our friend Sally Ann picked us up at the airport. She was just as excited to see us as when we stayed with her a few days prior, or when we saw her earlier in the month. It makes me wonder when people feel like they’ve caught up with those they’ve had to carefully avoid for most of the last two years.

He said, just as it was becoming apparent we’re going back to avoiding our friends and loved ones.

But not before Christmas, because we avoided everyone last year and that stunk and this is measurably better. We have soaring Covid rates, but also vaccines! Thank you science, and Merry Christmas. And so there we were, on Christmas Eve, in Sally Ann and Spencer’s home, planning for the next leg of our holiday travels. We’d removed our masks and took our first at-home Covid tests.

We took those tests because, once the 15 minutes of suspense was over and we were negative, which is a positive, we turned the car to …

We spent the better part of the next week with my mother, taking new tests every day, enjoying her walls instead of our own.

We had Christmas, of course, which is a thing we haven’t had a lot of in the last few years for a lot of reasons. But my mom picked up a bunch of silly little gifts for everyone and people unwrapped them and we laughed and it was different and fun. All of which, we came to find out, was just a setup for my being the recipient of a gag gift, which was clever and sweet and they’ll laugh about it for years because it’s now a part of the family lore.

We spent the weekend played dominoes with my grandfather, who you can see here performing trigonometry in his head.

He’s probably also there considering which dessert he should try, wondering about someone from his church, recalling a passing memory from his work life and thinking up the next sneakily hilarious thing he’ll say. He’s a smart fella, and dominoes aren’t the challenge for him that they are for me, is what I’m saying.

He won’t admit it, but he enjoys whipping me at dominoes. He’s not the sort that you’d think of us competitive, he’d much rather laugh at the moment than put up a big fuss about a game he’s playing. In the whole of my life the extent of his good-natured ribbing is “Goody goody!” But just as much as he likes to sit and visit and, as much as he was proud to teach me how to play dominoes, he also enjoys putting 45 points on the table while I’m drawing extra tiles.

But we play a lot of dominoes when we visit, now. It’s always my mother and grandfather versus me and The Yankee. And we’re getting better at it, at least a little. Occasionally we win a round or two. I am also experimenting with domino strategy, and counting dots on my fingers.

I will forever count dots on my fingers, even though my gag gift was a little calculator to go with my own set of dominos.

We had unseasonably warm weather, and we went for a few runs under some dramatic skies.

The whole time we were there the forecasts pointed at some bad weather coming later in the week, and we all tried to talk ourselves out of that eerie feeling you get this time of year when the barometer and the temperature are out of whack.

I seldom get to use that banner, but we ran over Wilson Dam again, so I’m going to use it here.

Water, as I have noted in this space before, is the predominant geographical feature of the area where all of my family live. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows to the southwest, into Alabama, before looping back up, helping form the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee borders and then heading on up to Kentucky. It created a topography that has defined all of the people that have ever lived there. (When we drove in on Christmas Eve we passed the “Entering the Tennessee River watershed” sign just as Christmas in Dixie came on the radio, like it was scripted to happen, and I was grateful for the darkness because it was a bit emotional in a nonsensical way.)

The Yuchi tribe, the Alibamu and the Coushatta, of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy, lived on this imposing body of water. They called it the Singing River. Alabama became a territory in 1817, white people moved in and it became a state in 1819. Some of my ancestors were among the first white people in the area, some even before the Native Americans were forcibly displaced by the federal government. From what I can glean, they were hardscrabble dirt farmers. Agriculture and water transit defined the era, but shipping was difficult. The shallow, turbulent water at Muscle Shoals was the problem, unlike this little man-made canal at Patton Island.

Then the Great War came.

There was a worry that the Imperial German Navy would cut off shipments of nitrates from South America, so the federal government decided to build their own nitrate plants, driven by hydroelectric power. Muscle Shoals was understood to have the greatest hydroelectric potential east of the Rockies.

So in 1918 they started building a dam, which became it’s own city, employing thousands. They had a school, barbershops, a hospital and more than a hundred miles of sewage lines. But the war ended before the construction did.

This is a view of Wilson Dam, completed in 1924 and named after President Woodrow Wilson.

It is a narrow, two-lane dam, always a bit intimidating when I was a kid. Back then, it was one of the last little bits of road on our two-hour trip to my grandparents’ home. My mom would tell me about how she learned how to drive on that dam, in the snow.

Well, I haven’t done that, but I have driven over it, jogged over it, biked over it in 2017, fished beneath it as a kid, marveled at the power of the spillways and the respect they commanded from people on the water, watched the ships pass through the locks, and dined above it. I didn’t grow up here, but the dam is omnipresent in my story because of the river it sits on and my family which lives in its orbit.

Wilson Dam has considerably less road traffic now, because of the almost-20-year-old Singing River Bridge, my vantage point for the above picture, which is a bit over a mile downstream. You can see the pylons of that bridge, here. I used to do news stories on the air about that bridge because, in the time around it opening, it was the most important thing happening in the area.

In 1933 the dam was handed over to the newly formed Tennessee Valley Authority, which also touches everyone and everything in the region. The dam was put on the historic registry in 1966, and boasts the highest single lift lock east of the Rocky Mountains.

I’m told they used to give tours. Sure, you could walk on that little sidewalk on the narrow dam, but why do that when you can walk through the dam?

As I said, they started building the dam in 1918. In 2016 we ran across the dam and saw a rainbow that was almost a century in the making.

Since they completed the thing in 1924, I now have two years to think up a good line and camp out on the dam until I see another century-old rainbow.

A word about those banners. The Spillway was a newspaper clipping from The Florence Times, the pre-merger ancestor of the modern Times Daily. The Spillway was one of those little social happenings sections of the daily paper The Northwest Alabamian is an old masthead from the still publishing paper of the same name. It’s been a twice-weekly community paper since 1965, tracing it’s own heritage back to 1911. The current publisher has been there since 1983. (He’s also now the county sheriff, and has worn a badge for 30 years, and was the agency’s public relations officer for some time. Small town papers, man.)

We stayed in north Alabama for most of the week, and have since returned to this.

Four days in a row so far, and three months until the reprieve that April will bring.

Hopefully the cats will forgive us for leaving them by then. They were demanding and cuddly over the long weekend.

And, now, for the first time in 2022, back to work.


24
Dec 21

Christmas Eve


23
Dec 21

Enjoying our time at the Christmas cottage

It’s always such a treat to be able to open our winter home on the Gold Coast. Though we learned that one of the neighbors is considering moving away. That would really be a shame.

Even on a cloudy day like yesterday, the Saugatuck and the Sound never fail to inspire.

We went out for a four-mile run, but I pulled the rip cord just a bit early when I slammed my heel into the road. Remember, it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my shoe’s fault, it was the asphalt.

I didn’t move quickly enough to catch the Canada geese, but I did get the heron from a distant, if only with my iPhone.

And of course, we ran by the old cemetery. You’ll love this marker.

1681- 1771

Families represented: Burns, Church, Gray, Hendricks, Shaw, in whose memory this tablet is dedicated by Compo Hill Chapter DAR and the Morris Park Association 1933.

In the American context of history the cemetery is getting up there in years — in the American context that plaque is aging nicely, too — one across the state is just a few decades older, and it is considered one of the oldest in New England. And if you start googling those names you begin to find the earliest English settlers in the region.

I believe there are just a handful of known graves in this cemetery, but I could be wrong. It sits beside a modern road, and in between is a walking path, and throughout you can enjoy some lovely birding and, just beyond, some decent fishing. Beyond that, you’re in a large city park that’s pretty quiet this time of year.

This evening, after she hanged her stockings by the chimney with care, I put the star on my in-laws’ Christmas tree.

It’s the little big things like that that make you understand you’re really a part of the family.

And how are your holiday festivities coming along? We’re opening a few presents this evening. And tomorrow I have to take on an entirely new role. It could be a hit! Or a miss!