Saturday, April 15, 2017

Our new song on a new CD: August 2017

Many of my friends have heard this story so often they could recite it from memory. But once more: Nearly a lifetime ago
three boys at Greensboro's Page High School began playing guitars and an old tenor banjo, with a plan to become the next Kingston Trio. It didn't happen. But the band's members continued to play when they could over the next five decades. Two died along the way, one in an auto accident, one from cancer, but still sang the folk songs of that era.
And the Kingston Trio still prospers, directed by Bob Shane, the surviving m
ember of the old band, and his wife Bobbie. The band is still on the road with a newer generation of Kingstons, entertaining audiences everywhere with the songs that made the trio the hottest musical group in the world for a few years. They're recorded most if not all of the recordable folk music, so they've taken to making new albums with new material. 
A first such writer's project album with some excellent songs came out a few years ago, and a call went out three years ago for more submissions. My lifelong friend Wood Allen asked me to write a song, took the result, edited it and put it to music before sending it in to the Kingston Trio. They liked it. In 2014 we flew out to Chandler, AZ to see the song put together in the sound studio, and have been waiting ever since for the remainder of the album to be recorded, mixed and produced. It seemed to take forever, but with the trio on the road so often, it was hard to get everything done.
Wood Allen, left, and I work out the timing for "On The Wind," our newest (ok, and onliest) song, to be published by the Kingston Trio in August at the 18th Annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ

Now comes word from the Kingston Trio website, sent along by fellow Kingston Trio fan Sue Keller, that it will happen this summer at the 18th Annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ:
Sue Keller
April 13 at 5:17pm
From the KT website:
New CD Release Date 
Our apologies for all of you who are waiting so patiently for The Kingston Trio's new CD. Bob Shane has decided that he wants to hold off the release of the CD until Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp (August 8th - 12th). 
For one thing most of the contributing writers will be there and Bob thought that releasing it then would honor them, plus where better place to release it, especially since this is the 60th year of the Kingston Trio. That's a jubilee!! 
The CD will go for sale online at The Kingston Trio Store during that time too, so don't worry if your can't be at camp. We'll have it for you at the same time. 
It's only 4 months away and will be worth the wait!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

How the granddad I never met helped fix the water system the other day

When the former Party Doll Strickland asked "Hey, is the well out of water, or something?" the other morning, I knew it was going to be a long day.  I was wrong. Turned out to be several long days, but this story has a happy ending. My grandfather, Charles Smith Minor Sr. of Anderson S.C., died a decade before I was born, but among the things I eventually inherited more than half a century later was his set of Handy dies and taps, fitted neatly into a hinged wooden box with slots and discs routed out to hold these tools.  The helped save the day when we discovered, long after we should have, that our water supply system up here in the Blue Ridge Mountains had three separate leaks, spread out over more than 300 feet of horizontal pipe and another 250 or so feet of pipe down in the well.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. On that Tuesday when all of a sudden we didn't have any water, I took a quick look at the water pressure tank and gauge under the house.  Tank looked ok, but you can't really tell anything by looks.  The pressure gauge, however, told the short story: There was near zero water pressure, and after turning the pump breaker off for 15 minutes, then back on, the pump had reset itself -- and I watched as the water pressure came up, then dropped back down, then came up, then dropped back down.

I know a few things about water wells and pumps and pressure tanks from a summer job many years ago with Bainbridge & Dance Water Well Co. in Guilford College, N.C.   And I know a little about leaks, so I called a couple of plumbing contractors and explained the problem.  That's how I met the Pump Man, as he is known around Floyd VA.  His real name is Rick Gibson, and in a quick trip out he determined that the pressure tank's internal bladder had gone bad and that the tank itself was waterlogged. That pressure switch didn't look any too good, either, rusting away as water dripped down one side, and part of a wire showed copper. Not good.

A couple days later, Rick was back with a new pressure tank and switch.  He made short work of installing it -- cutting the old tank out and removing the bad switch, and putting in the new ones. And then we watched the pressure gauge as the water dame up, then dropped back down, then came up.... Well, you know the story there: Another leak.

So we traipsed 300 feet down the hill to my workshop, where there's a frost-free hydrant where I get water for various projects in the workshop or the barn. There's a big handle on top that lives a four-foot internal rod with a rubber blob at the low end.  Lift the handle and water flows; push the handle back down and the rubber blob stops the flow of water -- and nearly as importantly, a small hole in the pipe casing allows the four-feet of trapped water to trickle out. So the water doesn't freeze, and the frost-free hydrant can be used even in cold weather.  Rick put his ear to the galvanized pipe sticking up out of the ground, listened intently for a moment, and invited me to do the same: we could hear water running constantly, which mean this was where the second leak was.  Would we have to dig it up and replace the whole hydrant?  "Don't know yet," Rick said.  "This is the kind of thing that takes the fun out of plumbing."

Rick's been in the plumbing business for some 32 years, and had learned to take one thing at a time.  He removed the hydrant head and, after a good bit of grunting and pulling and levering and wrenching, pulled out the four-foot rod.  But there was no rubber blob at the end of it, as there should be. There were only some damaged pipe threads where the rubber blob's internal fitting should have screwed onto the rod.  Rick began using a small saw and file to try to tidy up the damaged pipe threads. I watched for a couple minutes and thought of something. "You know, I think I have a set of dies somewhere that belonged to my grandfather. Lemme see if I can find 'em -- but I'm probably not lucky enough to have the right size die if  can lay my hands on the box."

I was wrong again, and happily so.  The wooden box of dies had five or six taps -- the threads you would cut inside a nut, for example, and five or six dies, for cutting the screw thread on a piece of pipe or rods.  And after a couple tries, we found exactly the right die.  Took a good two minutes to recut and thus restore the original threads.  The Rick gently lowered the rod down into the hydrant pipe, slowly fished around for a moment, then began turning the rod in place.  Then he pulled it up, and as it came he was smiling.  The old rubber blob -- misshapen and part of it split, so it wouldn't seal off the shaft -- came up with the rod.  And our luck was holding: Rick had a replacement for the rubber plug on his truck -- sort of a minor miracle itself.  How often are you going to be able to produce the right die -- from a set manufactured back during the Great Depression -- and then find out that you have the right esoteric part on your truck?  Trust me, as the President likes to say, but not often.

So with the hydrant restored to good order, and having fixed two separate leaks, we traipsed back up the hill, got under the house, and after flipping the breaker, watched the water pressure come back up on the brand-new pressure switch gauge -- and then watched in dismay as the water pressure went down again, then up again, then down again.   If you're still reading this, you know what this meant: yet a third leak, somewhere in the system.

"We'll have to pull the pipe out of the well and look at the pump," Rick said.  I groaned.  In my Bainbridge & Dance days, that meant some back-breaking work, pulling flexible pipe out of a well and walking it out into the field just to get a gander at the submersible pump. And I knew how much pipe that would be, because our well driller had gone down 360 feet before deciding that was deep enough.

But there was more good news: In the years since I last pulled pipe from a waterfall someone had invented a three-wheeled contraption that would grab the pipe and pull it smoothly out of a deep hole in the ground.  It took a little maneuvering to get the gizmo off Rick's truck and in the right place to pull the pipe, but pretty soon Rick was laying down 50-foot figure-eights of pipe and electrical wire behind him.  The pipe was solid, but when the end came up out of the well, the pump was just hanging on with a bit of electricians' tape and a few pieces of electrical cable.  There were remnants of three metal hose clamps, but each one was missing part of its metal band because, I do believe, the screw was of a different kind of metal -- and galvanic action had eaten those clamps for lunch.
And all that pipe had been empty of water, indicated that the foot valve at the top of the pump was not holding the water in the pipes. This was, of course, the key leak Rick had been chasing all day,  but the other two leaks had to be fixed, too.  And our luck was still holding, because Rick had the right replacement valve to install on the pump -- plus the right hose clamps and barb to keep the pump connected to the pipes and keep water flowing into the house, and not back down into the well.

So  after replacing the pump valve and attaching new clamps and using some fancy tape to wrap parts of the pipe, we put the pipe back in the well, replaced the camp, and trudged back up to the house to consult the pressure gauge. And lo and behold, the water pressure came back up -- and stayed where it was supposed to.  Finally there was cause for some celebration, of sorts.  I observed that it's not every day you have to  trace three leaks spread over 300 feet of horizontal run and 250 feet or so of perpendicular pipe, and Rick allowed as how that was on the unusual side.  "But the real miracle was that I had all of the parts on my truck to fix each of those leaks, and didn't have to go off for hours hunting them up.

But, I pointed out smug, it took my grandfather's tap-and-die set to save the day on that hydrant. "Yeah," Rick said. "But I've got a set just like that at home. Just didn't have it on my truck."

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Good dogs

On a peg on a wall in a dusty corner of my workshop hang the collars and tags of some of the best friends I ever had.   The collection started with the old leather collar of Sunshine, a brainy Golden Retriever who lived with us nearly a decade, long enough to help raise the children but not long enough to know them in her old age. She died early of cancer.

Then there's the red web collar that belonged to Maggie, another golden who specialized in playing tug-of-war with children and putting away impressive amounts of Oreo cookies (and who is the star of a short story, still to be written but often told, called "The Dogs of Lakemont"); and the blue collar of her playmate, a handsome, brave and none too wise Westie named Mac.  They engaged in hilarious faux fights, rolling around the floor with teeth bared and growling, but never seriously clamped down on one another.  Mac was afraid of no one, and I believe he would have attacked a bear if he ever had had the opportunity.  He wouldn't have won that fight, but would have gone at it anyway just for the sheer joy of tearing into something new and different.

Not long ago I put up the little red collar of Sadie, a gentle French Brittany Spaniel who we had to put down just days before Thanksgiving after a long and happy run up here on Rocky Knob Farm.  It has taken me this long to write about her, but I expected that.  When Mac met her unfortunate end in the 90s after getting into a batch of splintery bones, and when we had to put Maggie down a year or so later of old age, we grieved for months that turned into years before we dared to bring on another pet.

Sadie came our way from a family down in Chatham County that rescued Brittanies, most of them the liver-and-white variety.  The French Brittany Spaniel is black and white, but Sadie had just a bit of amber in her topside hair, and an engaging clutch of it stuck up straight.  We almost called her Spike, but that seemed disrespectful, and stuck with her given name of Sadie.

She had lived with an elderly gentleman in western North Carolina who became too sick to take care of her, and her foster family warned she might roam far and wide. She never did.  Turned out she liked living with us and rarely strayed out of sight up here on the farm.  She would disappear for minutes on end, then reappear at the other end of the house or the far side of the garden or the other side of the barn.  There was some photographic evidence of limited wanderlust, however.  One of our hunters from Surry County sent me an email containing photos from his game camera down in our woods about 200 yards below my shop. There was a picture of two bears that appeared to be waltzing; several pictures of a part-albino deer, and the scariest of all: a French Brittany Spaniel named Sadie, nosing around a patch of woods where the deer and the bear liked to feed.

A few years ago Sadie took sick.  Went to the doc, went to the vet school in Blacksburg, and no one could diagnose what was wrong.  The vets recommended exploratory surgery, or preparing for the worst within as little as days if not weeks.  We brought Sadie home and made her comfortable, started giving her forbidden treats from the dinner table, and three weeks later, after she had gained a few pounds, we realized we had been gamed. Sadie was trotting again, and soon running, and eating at least twice a day, and there were a few more years of a lively, funny, loving dog on this farm.

Still, she was 15, and that's a mighty fine old age.  She had slowed down last fall, we knew.  When we were gone on a trip, our house-and-dog sitter reported she was moving slowly, but she liked to ride in the car with the top down, and thus Sadie held court over north and eastern Patrick County, Princess of the Parkway, as friendly a dog as you will find.

By early November she was calling it in on some days -- sleeping late, eating little, waiting for help getting up and down the three steps to the deck.  A month or so earlier, she had been leaping up those steps; after seeing her throw herself onto the steps and sliding back down when she couldn't make the top, my heart broke a little for this proud dog who used to race us from the mailbox to the house -- and win.

On her last day, I carried her out to do her business in the grass. Instead, she lay down, spreadeagled, eyes raised at me as if to say, "It's time." It was.

One day later this year, or maybe next,  we'll go find us another dog in need of some farm life.  Don't know when that will be.  No rush, I guess.  We've had four fine dogs who have graced and enriched our lives with their intelligence, heart, companionship and unconditional love.  I suspect there'll be at least one more.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The old family cabin, up in smoke

It was a lovely fall morning, crisp under blue skies, with just a touch of frost until the breeze when I got down to the big garden to finish putting it to bed for the year.  There were a few more peppers to pick, and old iron tiller to haul up to the barn, and a lot of weeds to mow down and tomato cages to stack and store.  It took about an hour to hack down the tough weeds around the last of the potato patch, and I was thinking of one more cup of coffee up at the house when I took a look around.

And my blood froze. There on the northeast side of the hill, was a perfect column of white smoke over the tree line, the smoke drifting a bit on an unfelt puff.  I jumped into the RTV, threw it it into gear and gritted my teeth as we crawled up the hill towing trailer and mower.  At the foot of the driveway where Fran and Hal Strickland began building the family cabin in 1965, more smoke was moving through the trees.  I dashed across the road and into our driveway, blowing the lame little horn, grabbed my cell phone at the house and went back.  Renters that morning had left the cabin and locked the gate, and it took a moment to get it open and up the hill.

At first glance, it looked like a woods fire,  burning in patches around the house, but not yet on it. But not far from it either, and the first flames were just about to lick up the deck posts of one of the finest views of Piedmont Virginia that can be had from about 3,200 feet of elevation.  By the time I had run back downhill and called in the alarm to the Patrick County dispatcher, smoke was heavier -- and just like that I could see the first flames on the deck.

By the time I got the garage open to see if there was a rake or something to pull some of the fire apart, I heard glass bursting, as if someone were throwing brickbats at the big windows that gave the house such a grand view. I knew what that meant. Because even if the volunteer fire departments serving this part of southwest Virginia got up to us in record time, the house would still be gone.

It was, as houses go, a modest place -- a modified A-frame with a four-bed loft and a spiral staircase that my father-in-law had designed in his 50s, and that he and Fran had made their summertime home  for roughly a half-century.  Martha and I were courting when the house was going up, and over the years we put a lot of sweat equity into running wiring, hanging wallpaper, cutting firewood and enjoying the incomparable paradise that Patrick County can be.  There were innumerable family gatherings -- birthdays, Easter egg hunts when the young-uns were little, anniversaries, memories of Fran and Hal dancing to Lawrence Welk on Saturday evenings, gatherings of the aging folk group The Villagers back in their heyday, memories of Fred Birdsong and Jim Garrison,  both of them lost far too young to accident and disease.

In this place my children grew up, hanging onto the rear hitch and later the rollbars of Hal's succession of farm tractors -- the Econo 14, then his first Diesel, then a 21 horse New Holland.  In these fields our children first learned to drive a stick-shift transmission. And every Thanksgiving that they could find a ticket, they have come back east to the hills for the best family reunions you can imagine.

They'll be here next week, too, staying with us in the house we rebuilt in 2011 after another house fire, evidently started by a severe electrical storm in 2010 while we were in Raleigh packing for the beach.  It ill be sad for them to see the pitiful remains of a little cabin so loved by a far-flung family living in California and Hawaii and Mexico and  Idaho and Utah and Texas and Georgia. We'll still have wonderful Thanksgiving celebrations and carry on as families always do.

But we will miss that A-frame cabin, and the magnificent views, and soapstone wood stove that kept us warm in cool weather, and the bonds that Fran and Hal Strickland forged in their children's and grandchildren's lives.   It was just a house, you know, but a palace could not have been a better place to raise kids, eat like kings and look out over one of the most astonishing views on earth.

Monday, September 26, 2016

New golf course opens at Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club, then closes

Probably nothing more hazardous or hilarious than a group of 70-year-old men getting together and acting like college freshmen once again, but that sorta describes what went on last week here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club.  Since we live in Virginia now, we have to have a name for the house, you know, and RKT&YC is ours.  There are several others.  Burnt Downs is one, but that's another and sadder story.
Groundskeeper Jack Betts, left, and New Course Superintendent Bob Kulp at Rocky Knob National

This year a group of old boys who first met in the winter of 1964-65 at Chapel Hill, and went on to be pretty fast friends over a lot of years, came up to Belcher Mountain for the annual Beta Beach Trip.  It long has been at places like Beaufort or Ocean Isle or Savannah, but this time they came up here. We rented two houses and got use of another, all overlooking the Rock Castle Gorge and the Piedmont, plus the RKT&YC, which overlooks a hayfield.  They started rolling in on Tuesday and rolled out on Saturday in time for the football game in Chapel Hill.
Duffers Rob Crowder, Mike Waltrip, Pete Whittington, Cary Raditz and Clay Harrell at Rocky Knob National

 We smoked ribs one night, went to Dogtown Roadhouse in Floyd for pizza one night, and boiled up shrimp and wahoo another night. Some went to to see Lee Chichester, our neighbor down the road and author of a book on falconry, for a closer look at her birds.  Some drove out to Old Mill to play some golf.  Some went down to the Blue Ridge Music Center to play some music in the Friday Midday Music Jam there.  Some sat around and told stories for about the 11 gazillionth time.

But it was Dr. Bob Kulp, a crackerjack golfer, who had the best idea.  He brought up some clubs and pins and cups and flags and a bag of gently used golf balls from his course down in Georgia.  I had been mowing out a short course in our hayfield for several weeks.  We planted the cups and flew the flags and doled out the clubs, pairing non-golfers with veterans, and held a tournament.

Well, you might have called it mass chaos interrupted by too much merriment and too little golf expertise, but we called it a tournament -- the first ever at The New Course at Rocky Knob National Golf Club.  We believe it to be the finest tournament classic for a two-hole, 100-foot-long course anywhere in the free world.  That's our story, and we're sticking to it.

No one can accurately remember who won.  Things got a little hazy.   High spirits and such, if you know what I mean.  But everyone had the same chance to whack a golf ball and send it off somewhere into the toughest roughs you will find at any tournament sanctioned by Dr. Kulp. In fact, it was so popular that we had to close it down after two days, and sad to say, the New Course at Rocky Knob National no longer is open.  Okay, the cups are still in the ground, and it could be revived on short notice, but it's late in the haying season, and it's time to bring on the tractors.

Bill Gordon and Rocky Knob National Legal Counsel Scott Patterson

A bunch of old guys in the background, and announcer Pete Whittington with the Bug Light Microphone

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tom Dooley and Laura Foster, still pulling them in

We were packed into the living room of a home perched on the lower slope of one of those mountains surrounding Phoenix the other day, listening to a band called The Lion Sons singing and playing songs we had heard most of our lives.  Then Mike Marvin, the guitar player, paused and brought it all home.  Funny, wasn't it, he asked, that a woman who lived in the 1860s was still bringing us all together, time after time.
Tim Gorelanton, Mike Marvin and Josh Reynolds -- The Lion Sons

Everyone in the room knew who he meant, though it still took a moment to follow that line of reasoning, but he was absolutely right.  Had not Laura Foster died of stab wounds at the hand of Tom Dula in Wilkes County, N.C. in 1866, we probably wouldn't be going to considerable expense and effort to attend gatherings like the one in Phoenix all across the land -- and contemplating attending more of them next year.

But because Tom Dula (locally pronounced Dooley in the mid-19th century in Wilkes County) was accused, tried and convicted of Laura Foster's murder, and because someone wrote a song about Tom Dooley, and because a long time later an entertaining group called The Kingston Trio recorded a new arrangement of the song, and because that song went to the top of the charts, made the trio wealthy, and promoted a late 1950s folk music revival that still reverberates today, we join hundreds of other Kingston Trio fans in places like Alpharetta GA and Scottsdale AZ and maybe next year Astoria OR.

I know, I know.  Some folks chuckle at the idea of the Kingston Trio. It was, after all, the hottest musical group in the world for a few years, before the Beach Boys and the Beatles came along.  One story goes that the Beatles in their early years once opened for the Kingston Trio, but I don't know if that's true or not.   What many do not know is that the trio, in its current version, still tours with a couple of hundred concerts around the country each year.  One of its founders, Bob Shane, is still alive and performing his signature "Scotch and Soda," a great song that, another story goes, Frank Sinatra declined to record only because he could not do it as well as Bob Shane.  About the only person in the world I know who can sing it like Bob Shane is my buddy Wood Allen, who is a great singer and player.

Each year, about three dozen serious fans of the Kingston Trio pay about $4,200 each to attend the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, AZ (after a week there in the Arizona heat, the former Party Doll Strickland has renamed it "Scorchdale").  During the week, the campers rehearse much of the day, and each night there's a new concert.  The group sings a number or two with the current trio of George Grove (a Wake Forest University grad from Hickory), Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty.  Each camper also plays songs with a newly formed trio made up of other campers, and each camper sings a solo with two of the Kingstons.  There's a lot of music on that stage at Scottsdale Resort.

I didn't go as a camper, but as a guest of Wood Allen and as a hanger-on, because the resort makes rooms available for, pun intended, a relative song, to anyone who wants to hang out with these folks. They jam late into the night with others who come to enjoy the music and make some, too, and with a group of Bloodliners,  the name for ardent fans of singer songwriter John Stewart, who played with the trio for years and who produced his own albums, one of which was called California Bloodlines.  Thus the Bloodliners, and these fans are pretty tight with Kingston Trio fans, so every gathering is an enthusiastic reunion of old friends from around the globe.  My friend Tom Craig is a Scot, but he makes the journey every year to see other old friends, including Tom O'Donnell, a West Virginian who has a home in Great Britain not far from the other Tom.   It's amazing to run into recent friends and old buddies who have been on the music circuit for years in amateur and professional appearances.

And it was amazing to hear The Lion Sons, two of whom are related to Nick Reynolds, the original Kingston Trio performer who played that smallish Martin Tenor Guitar and was a fan favorite for years until his death in 2008.  Nick's son Josh plays with the Sons, as does Nick's nephew Mike Marvin, who pointed out the connection between Laura Foster and hundreds of fans' reason for coming to these gatherings.  Also in the group is tall Tim Gorelangton, but a story of Mike and Josh grabbed me in the gut.  Nick had taken a teenaged Mike into his home to live when Josh was still a small boy.  Neither of them remember Nick singing in the Reynolds home, with one exception: When Nick put the boys to bed each night, he would sing Woody Guthrie's "Hobo's Lullaby" before they fell asleep.  It's a sweet song with a soft pace, and when they sang it for the crowd that hot sleeping afternoon in Phoenix, I'll wager there wasn't a totally dry eye in the house:

"....Go to sleep you weary hobo,
Let the towns go drifting by,
Feel the steel rails singing,
That's the Hobo's Lullaby......"