Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Dozen #2 Danny and David

Some stories are hard to write. Sometimes a story flows so quickly that I have to type as fast as I can to get it down. There are some stories that weigh heavy on your mind, are like weights in your heart. They are stories that cause you to stop before you begin, stop and weigh them, remember them, think about the folks in the story, the hurts and pain that happened and still hides deep in your memory. Originally I planned on writing this story days ago. The problem was that it was not ready to be told.

After graduation from college I was invited to become Pastor of a small country church. The pay wasn't much, $100 a week, but a parsonage was provided and all utilities paid. Looking back now it seems impossible that anyone could have lived on that paycheck AND pay taxes and Social Security and still be able to buy a few groceries.

The people were wonderful, a Godsend to that young pastor. One dear lady brought me a gallon of fresh, home pasteurized milk every week. The cream was rich and thick as it floated on the surface of that milk. Church members kept my refrigerator full of fruits, vegetables, chickens, pork and beef. I needed very little. I was blessed.

On many Sundays someone would stop me as I walked past their pew and invite me to Sunday dinner at their home. My, oh my, the meals I had, the honor they bestowed on me. I was loved and I loved them.

John and Linda invited me home on a Sunday one Fall day. Little did I know that was the beginning of a journey with that couple.

After church I would always stand at the door and shake hands with folks as they left. Though I had been in their home a time or two, John offered to wait with me and Linda would drive home to their little two bedroom, one bath home on a side street right in town and get the meal ready. After I locked up we both folded ourselves into my little Ford Pinto and headed for town. We talked about the Fall weather, about squirrel hunting, about the harvest.

I still remember that Linda had fixed stuffed bell peppers. The peppers were huge and from John's garden. The meat, rice and tomato filling was rich and savory. White bread was stacked on a plate in the middle of the table and a huge bowl of "real" mashed potatoes sat with a puddle of butter just wanting me to spoon a huge glob onto my plate.

As we ate they told me they wanted me to be one of the first to know that they were not only expecting, but Linda was having twins. They had already told their parents and wanted me to know. I was thrilled for them. We laughed and talked of names for boys and girls. Linda fretted about two babies at once, John worried that their little white cottage would not be big enough for two babies. Linda didn't work outside the home and they fretted about paying for everything they needed. I reminded them that our little country church would rally around them just as they did for others on a regular basis. Baby clothes would creep out of closets and I knew a baby shower would be high on the agenda for the Women's Missionary Union.

Before the WMU could plan that baby shower there were complications. John called and talked to me in a quiet voice. Linda was crying in the background as he told me of the issues and complications Linda was having as she struggled to carry her two babies to full term. He wanted me to pray with them over the phone, said Linda would press her face against his and they would both listen to the phone as I prayed. I told them to wait a few minutes and I drove the 15 minutes to their home.

When I arrived John was waiting at the door. As soon as I was out of my car he was out the door with his big old arms raised and waiting to wrap themselves around me. He hugged me and started to cry as we stood in their little front yard. Mind you, this was a big farm boy and he was sobbing like I had never heard a man sob. His heart was breaking.

As we stood there and I talked quietly to him, I heard Linda begin to cry and we both turned to see her standing in the door. We went in and I hugged them both and we wept together. They thanked me for coming and apologized for making me come out that late in the evening. It was my place to be there, not duty, but where I needed to be, exactly where God wanted me to be.

I've sat often in the last few days and thought of that. Imagine, they were gracious and grateful that I came to be with them.

Things did not get better. The complications became worse and Linda was put on bed rest and then was hospitalized, much too soon before her due date. She made it past her sixth month before the problems became life threatening. She was rushed to the "big hospital" in Louisville, Kentucky and the doctors there tried to stabilize her and give the twins time to develop more.

Unfortunately, that was not what happened. Far too soon the doctors had to deliver two tiny little boys, more than two months before their due date. I received a call from John's mama and in the middle of the night drove to Louisville to be with the family. We sat together and waited, praying and hoping.

Both boys lived through the delivery and Linda began to recover quickly. I wish the same could be said for the twins. John and Linda named they Danny and David. I went into her room to speak with Linda and she told me their names and asked me to tell church folks and ask them to pray.

I was able to see them through the observation window to the prenatal ICU. They were both in the clear plastic incubators, wired and intubated and so very tiny. John stood beside me and Linda walked up, holding onto the metal pole that held her IVs. We stood and whispered. Their pride and hurt came in waves, first smiles, then tears. We held hands and prayed for those two little twins.

"They are identical", Linda said as she watched them.

Though identical, their complications and issues became quickly different. Both had undeveloped lungs. They struggled to breath, they struggled to live. I drove from my little parsonage to the big hospital in Louisville two and three days each week to be with John and Linda and their extended families. Their Mamas would bring Tupperware bowls full of food and we would sit together in the waiting area.

John and Linda were allowed in once an hour for just a few minutes. We could see them standing in the gowns they had to wear, faces covered with masks, hands gloved as they would reach into the incubator and touch Danny and David. They would stand as long as they were allowed and hold their little babies by the hand.

Pressure mounted in their skulls that had to be relieved, hemorrhages happened. They were black and blue from bruising.But John and Linda loved their boys. They called them by name and whispered their love through the plastic of the incubators.

More than once one of them would give up their time and ask me to suit up and go in with the other parent. I would stand on one side of the incubator and John or Linda on the other. We would push our hands through the portals and gently touch and stroke their little heads, their pain wracked bodies. We would each reach with one finger and they would grasp our finger with their hands.

I was only 24. I was not much more than a boy. I didn't have a lot of money and would worry about having enough gas to get to and from Louisville. There was always a way made for me. A Deacon would take my hand as he left and press cash into my hand, "You go see them babies. Tell John I'm prayin'.". Sometimes folks would slide a ten dollar bill into the chest pocket of my suit, "Use that where you need to".

Mrs. Sexton was a widow lady that lived in a two story white farm house on an eleven acre farm. She would laugh and say the farm was one acre wide and eleven acres long. In the winter she would shut off the heat to every room except the kitchen. A cot would be her bed and she would live in the kitchen with her little dog until spring so she didn't have to heat that big old drafty farm house. When I would visit she would sit on the cot, I sat on a kitchen chair and we would hold coffee mugs tight as we talked.

One Sunday during that time when I was driving back and forth to Louisville to be with John and Linda and their families, Mrs. Sexton slipped me a check for $20. I got a little teary eyed and told her she didn't need to do that. I said I knew she couldn't afford to give me money like that. She was living in her kitchen! I tried to hand it back to her.

She began to cry and changed my life in a way I didn't expect. "Brother Steve, don't take away my joy of giving. I want you to take that. I need for you to take it and be grateful, be joyful for the gift." I hugged her, thanked her and went to my office to sit instead of visiting with folks. How she had humbled me. What a lesson in grace and sacrifice she taught me.

David struggled for almost three weeks before his little body gave up. He died with his Mama and Daddy holding his hands. Though I had received a call to come, I didn't make it in time, but arrived about 30 minutes after he was gone. John and Linda were emotionally destroyed. They sobbed when I walked in, both jumping up and running to me. I held them for so very long as they wept on my shoulders. They were both older than me but they sought solace in what I could say, in my prayers.

They asked me if I would do David's funeral. I did not hesitate and agreed. As I drove home the staggering weight of that task hit me hard.

I had never done a funeral. Sure, I had married some folks, but that is a joyous occasion. The bride and groom didn't care or remember what I said. This was different. This was a precious little boy who had never had a chance to be held and fed, played with and loved like most kids. He had been in a plastic box all wired up from the beginning of his life.

I had been a believer since I was 9 years old. I had heard to stories of Jesus, had thought often of his sacrifice for the world, for me. When I thought of John 3:16; "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believes should not perish but have everlasting life.", I pondered it, I pondered who and what Jesus was so many times. I committed myself to serve Him, the be a Disciple, to be His. I had no doubt that God was real, that Jesus was God's Son, that He was fully man and fully God.

But how do you stand in front of a family broken down by the death of a tiny baby and give them hope? Was my faith strong enough? Did I not just believe but KNOW? Can I look that Daddy in the eye and say, "I know our Redeemer lives and I know that your little boy is with Him even now."

For the next couple nights and days I walked the halls of our little country church. I cried and prayed. I sat in pews and stared at the pulpit I stood in on Sunday. I wandered from room to room, stopping, looking, thinking, pondering and worrying. I was not enough. I worried, no, I knew I was not able to say what they needed me to say, to be who they needed me to be. I was just empty and upset that with my Type A personality in ruins, I was unable to fix things, I had answers, but how do I reassure parents as the lifeless body of their little boy lay in a tiny casket?

God and I talked a lot over those days. He chastized me, broke my heart and humbled me. I was not up to the task. Nothing I could say would be enough. I couldn't fix anything. Nothing anyone could say was enough. The "I'm so sorry for your loss" that would be repeated time and again meant little to those who grieved is what I realized. It wasn't about me, though I thought it was. It was always about Him.

Finally during one long night I realized what I had missed as I wallowed in self pity and loathing. What I said didn't matter at all. God was there all along, the Holy Spirit, the Comfortor, the Paraklete had been promised to John and Linda. HE promised to never leave us or forsake us.

When I arrived at the funeral home John and Linda were already there. On a table in front was a tiny white casket and David was there, dressed in a white gown. His skin was alabaster and he was beautiful. John took me by the arm and walked me over. "Isn't he handsome?" John asked. "He's beautiful, John. He was a gift, you know. For a few weeks he was a gift from God.".

"I know, Brother Steve. We know and we were blessed to be his Mommy and Daddy for the short time God lent him to us."

I looked John in the eyes and hugged him. "You know you'll see David again. You know he is in the arms of Jesus even now, don't you?" There it was. My confession of faith. I don't just believe, I KNOW. I needed to know, to be sure so I could stand honestly in front of this grieving couple and offer hope.

More than once that day they thanked me and others for all that had been done for them. John said it best, "We love all of  you for being there. For giving us your time and prayers. We needed you and you were there." I guess that is what the Church is all about, what Christianity is to us all, it is being there.

I don't remember what the funeral message was about exactly, I have no idea what scripture I used. What I do know is we gathered together to comfort folks we loved, to remind them of promises made to us by God, to the sacrifice of Jesus for us. We remembered that He loved us and we trusted Him.

As I grow older I find it more difficult to understand our society that pushes beliefs and social changes on us that we do not, cannot support because of things that are contrary to our faith. If we disgard what we believe, what our Bible teaches, do we really believe anything at all? I can't let go of what I believe simply because it is inconvenient to the world. I must hold tight to these things or I am lost and destroyed in spirit.

How difficult it was to see them as they laid their little boy into the ground. How hard for them to walk away from that place. I wonder even now if they go back and stand, wondering what might have been.

Danny lived. He had multiple operations, had significant vision problems and wore glasses even as a baby. He became a sweet little blonde headed boy. His parents sold the little white house and moved to a small subdivision out from town a bit so Danny would have a big yard to play in.

Last time I saw the family, saw Danny, we talked long over coffee about that terrible time, of the hurts and agony of losing David. We wept once more together and watched as Danny ran and played in their backyard and Linda spoke as we watched,

"But Danny lived."

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Dozen - #1 - Red Running Shoes

When I was a kid I loved to run.  No, I'm not talking about jogging. I'm talking about hard as you can, head forward, arms pumping and heart racing, run as fast as you can running. Forget that cross country, run for miles marathon stuff. Miles are for walking.

This was racing. You and a buddy do your own "on your marks", running to see who was the fastest, "who could get to the pre-determined goal first" running.

Sometimes it was barefoot in the yellow clay running. Our feet would be yellow dusty and muddy brown from the sweat that would run down our legs to mingle with the dust. It was glorious. Our hearts would pound as we fell to the side of the old road and laugh, call each other names and declaring ourselves the winner.

 Much of the time we ran in our old, beat up converse low tops.When PF Flyers were on TV we learned we could "run faster and jump higher". I don't know that Mama was convinced that I needed to run faster OR jump higher.

The only other choice available was Red Ball Jets. High tops were for basketball, low tops for every day wearing. For running, for racing when we had gravel to race over. Sure, our feet were leather tough and gravel was not near as painful then as now, but a stone bruise could mean a loss instead of a win in the world of country road racing.

Much of the time it was whatever shoe was on sale, regardless of my desire to run faster. Forget jumping higher. White was the color of choice. They seldom stayed white, however. They became dirty pretty quickly, sort of dingy gray dirty. Forget bleaching them, Mama. That dingy color was a badge of honor for "tennis shoes". Of course, I never played tennis. That is just what they were called if not called Converse, PF Flyers or Red Ball Jets.

In high school at Oneida Baptist Institute (a "settlement school" in the mountains of Clay County, Kentucky) I had grown out of the need to wear Red Ball Jets or PF Flyers. Those were for kids. Converse was the only reasonable choice.

Now, I was too nearsighted to play on the baseball team. Too uncoordinated to play on the basketball team. We didn't even have a football team and honestly, when I grew into those big old feet I had I was 6'2" and weighed 129 soaking wet with my clothes on... and pockets full of rocks.

But I could run. I didn't have the makeup to be a distance runner, I was a sprinter. I joined the track team and competed in the 100 yard dash, the 220, I ran as the last leg of the 880 relay and when forced to do so, the hurdles. I hated hurdles. My long legs got tangled up in them too often. Running wasn't about jumping over things like some kind of horse. It was about looking ahead, not left or right and just running as hard as I could.

I could outrun anyone at OBI in the 100 yard dash. Sometimes we ran barefoot, just because it felt good. We wold walk the lanes to pick up any pebbles and rocks in our lanes and race barefoot. That was the best. Most of the time, especially at track meets we ran in our Converse low tops.

Mr Kilgore was the Coach for most things athletic. He was the gym teacher, Basketball and Baseball coach for the A Team and track coach. Mr Barnes coached the B Team basketball and assisted with track. Mr Kilgore was short, handsome and single and all the girls swooned over him. Single, quiet and a nice guy.

That is until track season came around. To get our endurance up we would run over to the track fields at Oneida Elementary School where we would practice. It was over a mile and we ran there because we had to or not get there. He would drive the school bus over and we mostly rode it back to campus.

Notice I said mostly. Mr Kilgore would time me as I ran the 100 yard dash. If I had a slow speed he would let me run back to campus rather than ride back. "Steve, with that time I'm gonna let you run back."  Gee, thanks.

We didn't have all the fancy equipment. Not enough starting blocks for everyone, for example. We had two sets. If more than two ran in a heat someone would just kneel and set in the dirt. I loved the feel of the dust and dirt from the track on my knuckles as I knelt, raised up and waited for the starting gun to push away and run.

Most of the time the other athletes we ran against came from the little County High Schools around us in Eastern Kentucky. Many times they didn't have much more equipment than we did. Much of the time the other runners simply wore their Converse as well.

And I won, every time I ran against them in the 100 yard dash, I won. We were going to the Regional Track Meet eventually and I wanted to get a medal soooo bad. Track didn't get you a letter jacket, just a letter. A big blue and white "O". I wanted to win Regional and go to State my junior and senior years. I did both years. I did win the 100 yard dash at the Regionals both years. And yes, I got that little brass medal on a red, white and blue ribbon. Not as cool as a letter jacket, but cool. It also got me a seat at the Sports Banquet and TWO Blue and White "O" letters.

Mind you, others won their events, we won the 880 and I had a medal for that, but that was a team effort. All that was overshadowed when Cathy Carmack won State in the Shotput! We all forgot our wins as we watched and cheered her on.

But don't let me forget the main reason for writing the first of this dozen. Someone somewhere donated a whole box of TRACK SHOES to OBI! I'm talking red kangaroo leather, light as air track shoes with replaceable spikes. My, they were so soft and the leather was thin. The spikes gleamed as we rooted through the box to find our sizes.

Several guys wore size 11D and I held my breath as I scrambled for a pair for myself. But as I grabbed for a pair, I knew a secret. Most guys were trying on pair after pair, looking for the right fit. I saw the size was stamped in white on the tongues of the shoes. Then I grabbed a pair, "11W". Can you believe it? A pair of red kangaroo leather spikes that weren't just 11D, but were my actual 11 W size.

You think PF Flyers made me run faster and jump higher? Those red shoes made me The Flash, Superman, Jay Garrett - the Original Flash, Thor even!

Running to the Oneida Elementary School track was so cool the first time. As we ran along the side of that old asphalt road the long spikes sunk into the warm asphalt as we ran. My feet were so much lighter than when wearing my low top Converse.

That is when Mr Kilgore upped the ante for me and the other guys running the 100 yard dash. The girl's track team practiced at the same time. He called the three girls who ran the 50 yard dash over and placed them on the half way mark to the finish line and placed me and another two boys at the starting line. He explained with a slight smile that when he fired the starting gun the girls AND the boys would start at the same time.

If the boys lost we had to run back to campus. The bad thing was my little 5'2" girl friend was one of the runners on the 50 yard line. She laughed and waved. When the gun went off I ran as hard as I could. I saw her long blonde hair ahead of me and though I came close that first time, she and another girl beat me across the finish line.

As we ran back to campus my buddy Pat was on the outside of the pack when a car came along. He moved over before I did and stepped on my right foot with one of those long spikes puncturing my red kangaroo leather track shoes AND my foot.

The foot puncture cleaned up, though I still have a small round brown scar there to this day. It was the shoes that I was upset about. There was a puncture hole in my red kangaroo leather track shoes. The wound also slowed me down for a few days and the girls won time after time.

The ploy worked for Mr Kilgore. He knew I couldn't stand the idea of my short little girlfriend beating me to that finish line. (I suspect I'm lucky she wasn't a tall long-legged mountain girl who could run her heart out. Her short legs vs my long ones helped me.)

It took about 5 times before I won. Then I won again and again and Mr. Kilgore stopped using the girls on the 50 yard line. We had Regionals and hopefully State to prepare for.

Yep, we competed against other small school districts. There were 3 levels, Class A, AA and AAA schools. AAA schools were the smallest in the state. I really didn't care that I didn't compete against the Class A or AA athletes. I wore those red kangaroo leather track shoes and won the 100 Yard Dash at Regionals two years in a row. And yes, Mr Kilgore made me run those hateful hurdles. I never won, never wanted to run them. I came in 2nd or 3rd in the 220 and our team won the 880 Relay.

They we went to the State Track and Field Competition. I so wanted to win, but had no idea how fast the other boys were that I ran against. We ran in heats and I made it to the final heat. I think there were 6 or 8 boys who took their place as the starting line. When the starting gun went off I ran my heart out. I didn't want to lose. I wanted to win, to take home a state trophy.

But I came in 4th. Yes, it was humbling, it was hard to stand with my bare shoulders heaving and watch as three other boys laughed and were pounded on the back. Those red kangaroo leather track shoes maybe weren't as magical as I thought.

Mr Kilgore told me I did a great job. I had my best personal time ever. He thumped me on the back and told me he was proud of me. Other team members side bumped their bodies into mine, pounded me on the arm and echoed "good job" over and over.

But 4th place doesn't get a medal.

We were so proud of Cat Carmack for winning the State Girl's Shotput. She carried the shotput onto the school bus and we handed it around to feel the weight. We held her trophy and cheered her as she basked in her win! We were OBI. We sang much of the way from Louisville to Oneida, laughed and cheered for ever so long. Our Track and Field Team had a great day.

At the end of the season we had to turn in our uniforms ( I seem to remember hey were really old basketball uniforms. White with OBI on the front in blue and a team number on the back). We also had to hand in those red kangaroo hide track shoes. I marked mine my junior year and wore them again my senior year. Later on some boy probably wondered who had written "Hollen" on the tongue of those shoes. He might wear them his year in Track and Field, but those were my red kangaroo leather track shoes. My name on the tongue and that single puncture mark on the right one made it so.

I can't fly like the wind any longer. A jog is about all the steam I can work up and that is leisurely rather than a competition.

But in my mind I am 16 again. The wind is on my face and I breath deep as I run, hard and fast, my heart pumping, my legs like pistons as I race toward that point that is the finish.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Another Squirrel Tale

In the last few days I was reminded about the fox squirrels down home around my hometown of Beloved. Accordin' to what I've read they are the largest squirrels in North America, maybe the whole doggone world, I reckon.

Though I don't often tell stories on myself, the reminder has done thrown me back to a story from my misspent youth. I was about eleven or twelve when it happened, don't you know. It was fall an' the leaves was beautiful, red, yellow an' orange all over the mountainsides.

Daddy an' Mama had left me to visit with Grandma an' Uncle Buck for a week or two up on Double Creek. I remember it like it was yesterday. They had left brother Mike with Mama's sister, Aunt Geneva's for a while an' handed me off to Grandma an' Uncle Buck. I had hardly got out of the back seat of the car when Daddy took off. I heard Mama say, "I ain't give him his clothes yet." Daddy, bein' the lovin' parent that he was stopped long enough for Mama to toss that cardboard box of clothes toward me. Well, actually she tossed them into the weeds. They was off like they was bein' chased by a devil. It weren't a devil though. It was only me chasin' 'em an' throwin' rocks. Sigh. Good memories.

I got settled in at Grandma's house an' commenced to wander the woods. Ever' day I would sit an' listen to the birds, the sounds risin' from other cabins further up Double Creek. I also heard the barkin' of hundreds of them ol' fox squirrels. All over the ridge of the mountain they ran, up an' down the dry branches, climbin' the oaks for the acorns they hadn't grabbed an' hidden yet.

The gray squirrels was up there too, but agin the fox squirrel gangs they stood little chance cause they was so much smaller. They got by with stealth an' bein' sneaky. The fox squirrels survived by muscle an' strength.

Well now, my Grandma made about the best fried squirrel an' squirrel dumplin's the world has ever seen. We was sittin' at the table one day an' I asked Grandma if she would fix some squirrel dumplin's an' she said if Uncle Buck would shoot some she would. He grinned that crooked grin of his an' said "Sure nuff. We'll go tomorrow".

The next mornin' Uncle Buck woke me early an' told me to get dressed. I met him at his ol' pickup truck an' we was off. He drove us way up to the mouth of Double Creek before we stopped. He said he didn't want to get them fox squirrels close to the house riled up, y'see.

When we got out I grabbed my 22 rifle. Daddy had always said a feller needed to learn to shoot squirrel with a 22. Shotgun pellets tore the meat up too much. Uncle Buck took a minute to grab a big ol' army backpack which he shouldered an' then he picked up a 30-06 rifle out from behind the truck seat. I sort of figured he was afraid we might see a bear or maybe a panther or some such.

I didn't know exactly what he had in that backpack for it seemed to be awful heavy as he shouldered it. We climbed the mountain real quiet like. It was a right smart piece up to the top. We had to stop several times for Uncle Buck to rest. I just figured he was a'gettin' old. Heck, he was about 33 at the time. Ancient, as far as I was concerned.

We snuck along the ridge for quite a while till I heard that familiar bark of a fox squirrel. Uncle Buck shushed me an' took the backpack off his shoulders. I watched an' was sorta surprised when he took out a big ol' grapplin' hook, a big ol' long coil of heavy rope, about 30 feet of log chain an' a come along.

We left his supplies by a huge oak tree, about eight feet 'round an' commenced sneakin up on that fox squirrel. As we tippy toed our way closer, I kept seein' stumps along the way that looked almost like a beaver had chewed the tree down. I whispered to Uncle Buck my opinion about the stumps an' he whispered "Nah, it is that fox squirrel what did that.".

Now,I won't lie. I was lookin' forward to the hunt till he said that. It was at that moment that we came out of some tall sweet grasses an' saw it right 'bout 50 yards away. It was huge! It had a tail must-a been five or six yards long! Each back leg had hams that was as big as a full grown hog. It had to be 25 or 30 hands tall. It was way bigger than their ol' mule an' he was eighteen an' a half hands tall at the withers.

Uncle Buck handed me the 30-06, tol' me to creep over to a hickory tree, put my back to it, aim the rifle an' fire. I did just that, not knowin' where Uncle Buck went to. That rifle went off "Balooie" an' it threw me plumb on my back an' into the weeds. As I laid there stunned dumb as a rock I heard a terrible barkin' an screechin' goin' on. Trees was a fallin' all 'round an' Uncle Buck was a whoopin' an' hollerin' to beat the band. "You hit it! You got him!!"

I got up, brushed myself off just in time to see Uncle Buck throw that grapplin' hook. It landed in the scruff of that fox squirrel's neck. 'Course it was tied to that big ol' rope an' the rope was tied to the log chain an' he was a' tighten' it up with the come along. The log chain was wrapped aroun' the biggest white oak on the ridge. Uncle Buck waited till the rope an' chain was pulled tight by the carryin' on of that squirrel. He then ran up the chain, up the rope an' onto the back of that terrible thing!

I wasn't too bad scared till it turned an' bared its fangs at me an' barked loud, like it was a callin' others to help it. That was when Uncle Buck pulled out a long leather belt an' leaned down to wrap that belt around the muzzle of that dang fox squirrel so it wouldn't bite him or me or call to the herd of fox squirrel livin' on the mountain. I heard the rumblin' an trampin' of other fox squirrels comin' toward us till Uncle Buck wrapped that belt around the muzzle. When it stopped a' callin' the others stopped, listened an' went back to their business.

I won't plump up the story an' tell y'all lies about that day. I'd rather eat fried chicken than lie to y'all. It was a battle, though. Uncle Buck wrassled an' rode that thing up an' down the hollers, round the hill as it knocked over tree after tree, pulled some up by the roots, big ol' trees, a hundred foot tall or more. It would toss them toward its own back tryin to hit Uncle Buck. Just to give you an idea of how bad the battle was, Uncle Buck was able to log that mountain for three years just by cuttin' up the trees that fox squirrel had torn out or knocked over.

It pulled that big ol' white oak out by the roots an' as it wallered its way down the mountain it made a wide an' straight swatch down the hillside. It was such a straight swatch of clear mountainside that the Rural Electric Company was able to use that path to put up them big ol' electric towers along the path an' bring electric to 700 families up an' down the Red Bird River, thanks to my Uncle Buck an' that fox squirrel.

By the time they was down from the mouth of Double Creek an' to the bottom of the hill folks had heard the carryin' on' an' had gathered at Grandma's house to wait. As Uncle Buck came into view a' ridin' that gigantic squirrel they commenced to clappin' an' cheerin'. They was gonna be enough squirrel meat to feed more than a dozen families for the winter.

Finally Uncle Buck knew it was time to stop before that squirrel tore up my Great Aunt Maggie's cabin what was right across the creek an' which was bein' slapped by that fox squirrel's tail. He took out a little ol' ball peen hammer from his pocket an' tapped that fox squirrel right between the ears. It fell over deader than a door knuckle. They have a soft spot between the ears like a lot of folks have, don't ye know.

Ever' one gathered round the carcass and before you knew it they was hams an' squirrel bacon salted an' hanging in smokehouses up an' down the holler. They was a grindin' squirrel sausage, addin' salt, sage an' other spices. The backstrap was given to Grandma an' with the help of five or six other womenfolks she started a fire an set on it her big ol' copper pot that she usually made apple butter in. the youngins, includin' me hauled over 300 gallons of spring water to fill that copper pot. When it was boilin' they threw in the backstrap chunks, salt and other secret ingredients, Eleven secret herbs an' spices in all.

That pot simmered an' cooked for hours. The womenfolks sat an' worked on quilt pieces while they waited. The menfolks skinned out the fox squirrel an' since the hide was too big for Grandma's barn alone, they scraped it, cut it into pieces, salted it an' nailed it to the sides of fourteen barns to cure. It looked like ever' barn in the holler had a red fur coat on that fall. When they was a' gradin' their 'baccer crops, tyin' hands an' puttin' 'em into the 'baccer presses they didn't hardly need a fire in the woodstoves. Them pieces of that fox squirrel's hide kept them barns that warm.

Finally, Grandma said it was time for the dumplin's. Man, oh man, did them women hurry and grab flour, salt an' all the fixin's. Some made drop dumplin's, other rolled them out. Grandma supervised after she made her own an' tossed 'em in. She used her long apple butter stirrer to make sure the dumplin's didn't stick together.

It didn't take long for the dumplin's to be done. Grandma's was so light they had to put a fish net over the top of the kettle to keep them from floatin' off.

My cousin, Peanut heard they was gonna be some dumplin's fed to folks an' he showed up with the whole Chappell Clan; Vergie an' Mizz Chappell, Brother Woodrow Budder and Peanut's sister, Sister Hazel Nutt Budder, Peanut's brothers Wally Nutt Chappell, Ol' Hickory Nutt Chappell, Cornelius Nutt Chappell (we called him Corny Nutt).

They was Nutts all over the place.

Plates an' bowls was brought from all up an' down Double Creek. Folks ate with forks, spoons an' even their fingers. Long saplin's were laid out that was sharpened to a point an' with a barb to spear the extra light dumplin's as they drifted up from the broth an' skyward. "My, oh my, oh my" was all a feller could say. It was some kind of mountain feast.

Most folks was so full an' worn out from the eatin', the preparin' an' the storytellin, singin', the playin' of fiddles, guitars, bannjers an' other instruments that many stayed right there at Grandma an' Uncle Buck's place. Must'a been fifty or so that slept in the hay loft.

Hundreds of eggs, dozens of slabs of bacon an' fourteen hams was brought the next mornin' as the womenfolks made breakfast. The men cleaned up the mess from the day before an' started boilin' the bones to make broth an' then to clean the bones up good. For years fellers played fox squirrel bone whistles, youngin's rode on stick ponies made from longer bones. One feller asked for the big bones an' made a honeymoon cabin for him an' his new bride. Grandma used the skull of that critter as a hen house for years.

Yessir, that was a fine visit with Grandma and my Uncle Buck.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Prodigal

Thanksgiving was a quiet day for Billy Gilbert. Since his wife Del died he mostly spent Thanksgiving alone. It wasn't that he didn't have folks who invited him to come be with them, he had turned down half a dozen invites for Thanksgiving this year. Around the little mountain town of Beloved, Kentucky everyone knew "Uncle Billy" Gilbert. He had an abundance of friends, neighbors and kin within a few miles.

Uncle Billy was also sought after by just about ever' older woman in the community. Hazel Williams led the pack. She had proclaimed about a year after Aunt Del Gilbert passed that "William Gilbert Senior was gonna be her man one of these days".

When Uncle Billy heard that second or third hand he just laughed, shook his head an' said, "That ain't ever gonna happen, y'all. No one could ever fill Del's place, especially not Hazel Williams. She don't even know my proper name, for goodness sakes."

Her statement just rubbed him the wrong way for a whole bunch of reasons. First an' foremost was the plain ol' fact he weren't interested in her or any other woman. He was 78 years old, set in his ways, content with life an' just not lookin'.

Mostly Hazel was plain ol' aggravatin'. She was the worst gossip that lived in Beloved, nosy, a busybody an' not much of a cook. She would drop by his ol' farm up the little holler to pay a "social call" an' to check on "poor ol' Bill" way too often for Uncle Billy. He got to parkin' his truck in the barn just so she would think he was gone an' leave him alone. Now an' again she would catch him out in the barnyard or on the porch. She would get out without an invite, stroll up an' take over his time, stayin' for hours if he couldn't think of anythin' to get up an' go do.

An' he hated that she called him "Bill" or "William". That weren't his name. No one called him Bill an' never was he William! His name was simply Billy Gilbert. That was his given name. Actually since his son was born he was Billy Gilbert Senior. He was Uncle Billy an' his son became "Little Billy" or for many it was "Little Bill". When he got older Little Billy had asked to be called Will instead of Little Billy. It made sense to have their names a bit different an most folks did call him Will, though some of the older kinfolks still referred to him as Little Billy.

Uncle Billy had told Hazel that his name wasn't Bill or William a thousand times. He suspected she was just uppity an' thought Billy was too common a name.

Well anyway, Uncle Billy had plenty of invites, he just preferred to be alone on Thanksgiving. Actually he was only alone Thanksgiving afternoon. By evenin' his ol' cabin became the meetin' place for a dozen men an' boys who always showed up with plates full of leftovers from their family feast.

It had started spontaneously several years before, two years or so after Aunt Del had passed. Folks got worried that Uncle Billy was spendin' Thanksgiving alone an' more than a dozen men an' boys showed up carryin' plates an' bowls prepared by wives wantin' to make sure the ol' man of the holler had some good food in his belly. They all spent the evenin' sittin' around, sharin' leftovers, tellin' stories an' enjoyin' the good company of men raised together.

That had become an unofficial custom for many of the fellers in the community. By evenin' they would kiss their wives an' family goodbye an' make their way to the little holler where Uncle Billy lived. They would have hands full of good food as they headed in the door of the ol' cabin. No one knocked, they all just went in. They were expected.

Uncle Billy stirred a huge pot of soup beans as he thought of the get together that would happen later that night. He had already made two cast iron skillets of regular cornbread an' two skillets of cracklin' bread (cornbread with cracklin's baked in). He would make a couple more skillets of cornbread before all them boys got there later. That was what he had made himself the first year an' it had become a tradition. Actually, he hadn't made soup beans the second year an' fellers asked him where the soup beans was!

As he stirred the soup beans he heard the screen door slap as it shut. Strange that someone was there that early. He really hoped it wasn't ol' Hazel Williams.. She snuck around an' would show up on Thanksgivin' now an' again. He wiped his hands on a dishrag an' turned to see who had come in.

Imagine his surprise when his son walked into the long kitchen an' just stood for a minute. Y'see, since Will had married Jennifer he didn't come home much. They lived in Akron, Ohio where Will was a veterinarian. They had a fine home up there an' Jennifer didn't think much of the mountains. Didn't think much of the home place where Will was raised. to her Will was William, though it wasn't his name at all. His diplomas said, "Billy Gilbert, Jr", the big sign outside the vet clinic had "Billy Gilbert, Jr, DVM" but she called him William, never Will, Billy or even Bill.

Oh, and she was always Jennifer. Never Jen, Jenny or any other nickname. She made it clear the first time Uncle Billy called her Jenny that her name was Jennifer.

Uncle Billy stood in shock for a minute, not know what to say, what to do. He nodded at Will, "Hullo youngin'. How you been?"

Will stood quiet for a bit, "Howdy, Pappy. Them some soup beans?"

"Yep, they are. You wantin' some?"

"Wouldn't mind a bowl, Pap. Any cracklin' bread?" Will asked.

"Better believe it. You allowed to have some?" his Daddy asked with a grin. Uncle Billy knew Wil snuck a bite of good ol' mountain food when he could. Jennifer didn't approve, of course. She didn't approve of lard, bacon grease, soup beans, corn bread, fatback, bacon, ham, fried chicken or most of what Will ate growin' up in the mountains. Because of Jennifer, Will's diet was almost that of a vegetarian with only a little fish or chicken thrown in.

That was all it took. Uncle Billy didn't know why Will was there, but knew somethin' was wrong. His boy just didn't come 'round on holidays, didn't come round much at all. Jennifer didn't like the mountains, didn't like the little holler, didn't seem to like mountain folks. Strange that she would marry a mountain boy. she did her best to wring the mountains out of Will.

Will grabbed the back of an ol' ladderback chair that sat by the table an' dropped into it with his eyes already wet. "Oh Pappy, she left me. Jennifer up an' moved out. I went to a convention to get some continuing education classes an' when I got back she had mostly cleaned the house out. Most of the furniture was gone. Divorce papers were on the kitchen counter an' a letter."

"Son, didn't you know? Had things been that bad?"

"Pap", Will looked up into his Daddy's blue eyes. His eyes were the same shade of dark blue, his features a younger reflection of the older man. "Pap, I thought things were OK. Jennifer was never much of romance, huggin' or warmth. I thought things were OK. She left me for a lawyer, Pappy. He was the one who drew up the divorce papers!"

His Daddy didn't know what to say. He just pulled out another chair an' sat down, waitin'. He knew Will wasn't done. "Pappy, she took all our bank account. She took the car, took most of the furniture, even my basketball signed by Adolph Rupp! She is askin' for half of my retirement fund. She couldn't take that without the courts or she would have drained it too. She wants the house to be sold and wants half of the proceeds. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Uncle Billy stood, went over to his son and wrapped his arms around his boy's shoulders. Will cried hard as he leaned into his Daddy. "I don't know either, son, but I'll help you any way I can."

"Can I stay for a while? I can't go home right now. I don't want to go home right now."

"Of course. You know you don't have to ask."

"Oh Pappy, I haven't been much of a son." Will cried. "I am so sorry. I was to worried about pleasing her that I stayed away, I pushed you away."

"Yep, you did. No doubt, you did."

"I am so sorry, Pappy. So very sorry. Will you forgive me?"

"Son, Will, Billy Boy, I already have. No need to even ask."

"Why Daddy? Why would you forgive me already?"

"Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? I know y'all don't go to church, but do you remember when I read it to you, when you learned about it in Sunday School?" Uncle Billy asked.

"Of course I do. But I am not the Prodigal. I didn't ask for my part an go away to some foreign country and waste it. I haven't come back asking to be your servant." Will was a bit indignant, thinking his Daddy was being a little judgmental at the wrong time.

"Of course not. That ain't the point at all. Y'see, that Daddy forgave his son before he ever showed up, walkin' toward home. It is a Daddy's nature to love his youngin's in spite of what they do, of what they are. A good Daddy forgives, loves an' waits, not because of what they do, but in spite of anything they do. He loves them because they are his."

"Oh." was all Will could say.

"Now Will, I need to go down the road to Hap's to make a couple calls or we'll have a dozen or more fellers comin' in after while. I need to tell them not to come this year. Me an' you will sit, eat some soup beans an' cracklin' bread an' just visit."

As Uncle Billy got up he hugged Will once more, went over an' turned down the soup beans to a simmer. "Stir these a couple times while I'm gone. Don't want our supper to burn."

Will sat for just a minute before he stood up, "Pappy, don't make them calls. I want those men to come over. I need them to come over. I need to laugh, to hug the necks of a few cousins and old friends. I need to be around mountain folks right now."

"You sure, Will? What if they ask questions? What if they get nosy? What you gonna tell them?"

"I'm sure, Pap. After all, wasn't there a feast at the end of that story? I'll just tell them the truth. I'll tell them the Prodigal Vet has come home." Will laughed.

"That's fine, boy, but I ain't killin' my cow."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Little Ol' Towns

They ain't much very special 
About little ol' towns
Hidin' deep in the mountains
Not much business around.

Why, they can't even afford 
A single stoplight in some
They roll up their sidewalks
Before the sun ever sets.
Folks still sit out on porches
Ol' men whittle an' wait
Drinkin' sody pop an' Moonpies 
Chewin', spittin' to boot.

They tell lies, swap knives

Laugh at their own jokes
Their wives still are pesterin'
While they sit a' jesterin'

Women still gossip over coffee,
Tea and a fresh baked crumb cake
They rant, rave an' rail on
At the messes their husbands make.

Ornery youngin's wander yards,
 Back alleys an' half empty streets
Prankin' an yankin' a little gal's hair
Hootin' an' hollerin', fillin' the air.

It ain't much of a place
To raise youngin's ye know
Ain't even no movies
Not many places to go.

Yet as they talk of their town
The place they was raised
Folks get all misty, red eyed an'
Weepy, rememberin' how it was.