Thursday, March 8, 2018

Growing Up With Woody

Hard to say goodbye to an old friend of many years, even one that I wasn’t really close to.  When we ran into one another it’d usually be a handshake and a word or two, but not really a relationship.  But I spent a goodly part of my adult life with Woody Durham, most of it on warm autumn afternoons and frigid winter evenings, listening to him call the Tar Heels through games that ranged from deep disasters to towering victories and national championships.   Even when we had football tickets I’d take a little headset radio with me just to listen to Woody — and even when the Heels were on national TV broadcasts with the big network boys, we’d turn down the sound and listen to Woody.

I grew from a young man in the 1970s to a gimp-kneed geezer in the 21st century listening to Woody and his sidekicks like Mick Mixon and Eric Montross and even for a while his boyhood hero Charlie Choo-Choo Justice. I was always impressed by the fact that he seemed to know everything about every Carolina player, but also most of the players from the opposing team. If you listened regularly, you would pretty soon know where every UNC player had come from — and to this day when we are driving through South Georgia, my wife Martha B. will ask, “Where is the Gray, Georgia junior these days?” We’d laugh, because Woody’s description of Al Wood would roll effortlessly off his tongue, and it was usually because Wood had just hit a long one.

My children grew up the same way, listening to Woody as his words flowed out through the big speakers in our den.   He didn’t always open a broadcast this way, but when he would start with “And the Tar Heel Sports Network is ON the air,” it seemed like a dramatic moment on a very cold night that was about to heat up and might turn into an inferno before the Heels and the Wolfpack or the Demon Deacons or the Blue Devils got through tearing each other to shred and setting off the evening’s celebratory fireworks.

Woody’s words became part of our family lingo — sometimes “Good gracious, Gertie” and sometimes something like “Go to war, Miss Agnes” when something spectacular happened. And listeners had their own private routines in tight moments when Woody said, “Go where you go and do what you do” — the signal to turn to whatever your lucky spot was and get there quick.  For me it was a quick trip to the fridge to grab a cold one and get back to my front-row seat before play began again.

Things weren’t always they way you wanted them, and I bled with Woody when he would try to interview the sometimes tight-lipped football coach Dick Drum, whose answers after a long and involved question might be “Yes, Woody.”  

And one night in a game with, I think, Virginia, play stopped when a collision resulted in a Cavalier writhing on the floor in pain. This was during a time when the broadcast was sponsored by a well-known hot dog manufacturer. As the Cavalier staff was tending to the hurt player,  there was no sound from announcer or advertiser.  Then Mixon broke in with something like, “Well, Woody, this is a family broadcast so I can’t say exactly where the Virginia player is hurt, but I can tell you this would be a good time for a Beef Master Frank from Curtis Packing.”   And the next sound was Woody trying to stifle a belly laugh that went on and on and on.  It was a while before the broadcast could resume,

I was a Carolina Cheerleader back in the late 1960s when the Mouth of the South, Bill Currie, was doing the broadcasting, and while Currie was colorful and fun-loving, I recognized when Woody Durham took over in the ‘70s that this was a serious student of sports who did his homework, knew his stats and worked hard to be fair to players from other schools.   And while he clearly was a Tar Heel loyal to the Carolina Blue, he was also a realist. 

One night the late Gene Wang, then of United Press International, asked me to keep statistics to help him cover a Carolina game on a weekday night against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill.  This was before Carmichael Auditorium opened, and the press box was in the ironworks high above the old Woolen Gymnasium.  It did not go well for the Heels, and part way through the game Gene had to grab me by the elbow to remind me that it was bad form for sportswriters to razz the refs from the press box.  It wasn’t helping anyway, as the Demon Deacons just pounded the stuffing out of the Tar Heels that night.  We were sitting a few spaces away from Woody, and as Gene was finishing his story on deadline, Woody was wrapping up his postgame comments.  Then with a sigh he signed off, yanked off his headset, looked around, and said, “Boys, that was a country ass-whupping.’”  It was.

Fortunately there weren’t nearly as many of those as there were dramatic victories. Woody brought them all into our home with pictures of the action painted in streams of words, shaded in blue but always putting his listeners right there at courtside  or on the 50 yard line. With all Woody’s experience over the years in Blue Heaven, I expect that by now, he’s already begun helping the Heavenly Host understand how the game is played — and where each of the angels went to high school.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sid Paine, cousin extraordinaire

My cousin Sid Paine died the other day while on a trip with his wife Elaine up in Vermont, pursuing their common passion for travel, meeting other folks, hearing their stories and telling, oh, I would guess about 1,000 stories of their own.  He was a spectacular human being, and I find myself recalling that he has been my idol since I was age 5 or 6.

Sid was everything I wasn't: Good looking, great hair, a million-dollar smile, a terrific athlete in every sport he ever took up, and equipped with that rare ability to make friends with just about anyone, anywhere.  He should have been an ambassador, but what he was was an educator, a historian, and oral storyteller who knew people around the world, and knew their kinfolk back in places like Haw River and Monck's Corner and Ninety-Six and South Bend and Chapel Hill and Columbia and any city or county in the South named for Nathaniel Green.

I'll put his formal obituary at the end of this post, but the thing that always made me feel better was just being around Sid's and Elaine's good cheer.  The world might be caving in around you, but they'd be telling you about some fisherman in Wales or a castle watchman in Salisbury or a wayward student at Darlington School or the time in high school when Sid had to guard future basketball All-American at UNC, Lennie Rosenbluth. And Sid's punch lines always had you in stitches: "Yep. Held him to 40 points,"  he would say with a grin. "All I saw that night was Lennie's armpit."

Sid and Elaine were career teachers who taught their students about life, not just about the course of instruction or what they needed to know to get through the school year. They were walking Encyclopedias of what it means to be a citizen any place on the planet.  Oh yeah -- they also knew the best places to eat wherever you were going, or the best place to find a good Scotch, or their favorite place at Augusta National to watch the Masters, or who to talk to when you wanted to do something different on vacation

Sid had a little bit more than a decade on me, and it was his idea to go to England and rent a narrow boat, as they are called, to navigate along the hundreds of miles of restored industrial-revolution canals across that country. Sixty feet long and six feet wide, with a little bitty diesel engine and a long tiller to steer by.  There is  nothing like locking yourself through scores of hand-operated locks on those old blackwater canals,  poking along at 3 m.p.h. through the English countryside, stopping every few miles to stake the narrowboat fore and aft to the towpath and  pop into a pub and pass the afternoon with his new best friends of, oh, about 10 minutes' acquaintance.

We didn't see one another every year, but when we did, we had to allow two or three days just to catch up on the family stories.  Our mutual grandparents, Mary Atkinson Monie Betts and Dr. Joseph Shawen Betts of Greensboro, N.C. were characters in their own right -- fascinated by the history of generations  of family going back to places like Kilmarnock, Scotland and the Towles Point Plantation on the Rappahannock in Virginia, and tales of growing up in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We'd tramp around the battlefields of Yorktown, explore the yonder reaches of the Blue Ridge Parkway, replay long-forgotten football and basketball games, tell outrageous jokes and carry on late into the night, exploring unanswered family questions that we never thought to ask the grownups about.

I've thought about this a time or two: I don't think I could've invented a more likable, cheerful, knowledgeable and always-ready-to-talk-though-the-night-if only-you-could cousin, as Sid Paine. Everyone in our family will miss him greatly, but I especially will miss those moments when he'd remember something, get a sly grin on his face, hunch over the bar and ask me, "Say, did I ever tell you about the time......" and then we'd be off on another lively Betts family tangent, digging up something from long ago, and wearing it out over another wee dram of that MacCallans he took with him in the trunk of the car.   Oh, the stories.  Rest in peace, Sid, and the next one's on me.  See you.

From Mackey's Funeral Home:
Sidney Betts Paine of Greenville, S.C., beloved husband of Marie Elaine Brooks Paine, died on September 5, 2017 in Burlington, Vt. Sid, who was born in Greensboro, N.C. on June 26, 1936, was the elder son of the late Sidney Lake Paine and Margaret Delaney Betts Paine. Besides his devoted wife of 58 years, Sid is survived by daughter Elizabeth Paine Weaver, her husband William Bennett Weaver, and their children Matthew Bennett Weaver, his wife Erin Wolfe Weaver and daughter Reagan Julia Weaver, and Lindsay Elizabeth Weaver, all of Rock Hill, S.C.; daughter Marianne Paine Childers, her husband Gregory Stephen Childers, and their children Delaney Brooks Childers and Cameron Stephen Childers, all of Greer, S.C.; and a brother Christopher Borden Paine of Asheville, N.C.

Sid’s paternal grandfather, Sidney Small Paine, was the world’s largest manufacturer of corduroy, while his great grandfather, Sidney Borden Paine, was the first to electrify a textile mill. His maternal grandfather, Joseph Shawen Betts, was the president of the North Carolina Dental Association, and his grandmother was a founder of the Greensboro, N.C. Historical Museum.

Sid graduated from Woodberry Forest School and earned B.A. and M.A degrees from the University of South Carolina. He was also a veteran of the United States Army. He taught at the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., the Stanley Clark School in South Bend, In., where he was also assistant headmaster, and the Greenville County School System (including Hillcrest Middle School, Greenville Middle School and J.L. Mann High School), where he also held administrative positions. He retired in 1997.

During their summer vacations, Sid and Elaine took their daughters on expeditions to all 50 states, as well as most of the provinces and territories of Canada, dipping into Mexico as well. In 1985, they spent 7 weeks touring England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland plus Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. After the girls had left the nest, Sid and Elaine continued international travel and visited all the continents at least twice, except for once to Antarctica.

Sid enjoyed the game of golf, especially playing with the Golden Boys of Pebble Creek Country Club and the members of Senior Golfers of South Carolina. He was privileged to play some of the great courses in the United States and in foreign countries.

Sid was a life-long Episcopalian. A memorial service will be held at St. James Episcopal Church on 301 Piney Mountain Road on Saturday, September 16 at 11:00 A.M.

In lieu of flowers, memorial may be sent to St. James Episcopal Church on 301 Piney Mountain Road, Greenville, SC 29609.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Changes on the wind

When we woke up yesterday the thermometer told us what season it was: 46 degrees, and no longer late summer.  It's still a couple weeks before the autumnal equinox, but the sharp breeze carried its own message: Start bringing the firewood up to the house.  It won't be long until the soapstone wood stove, cool and silent since last spring, will be fired up and providing most of the heat as we head into increasingly cooler weather.

It's a time of year I love: the change in the seasons, the dramatic colors on the maples and chestnut oaks and poplars, the hauling in of the abundant apple crop this season and the putting to bed of this old farm.  There's a fence to be rebuilt, and a bit of orchard to put in when the new apple trees arrive, and the mowing -- ye gods, the mowing.   Our extended family owns 71  acres on this Belcher Mountain spread, and I keep the open fields open by giving it a good bush-hogging several times in the warm season and a final cut along the Smith River feeder creek in November with the sickle bar mower, an iron beast made a long time ago by Massey Ferguson that fits, with a little bit of cussing and banging and heavy grease, on my Kubota tractor.

We've also learned over the years that when our apples ripen, the critters here about -- the bear cubs and the ground hogs and the bobcats and I don't know what-all -- will give us a few days to get ours before they crawl up into the trees and sample each apple a little bit. We've harvested the apples inside the fence; Today's the day we go after the heritage apples -- the Limbertwigs, the Northern Spies, the Firesides (still coming on an apple tree trunk that has lain on the ground ever since Hurricane Fran in 1996 -- or was it Hugo in 1989?, the Yellow Bellflowers and the seedlings that still produce fruit even when we don't know their names.  We call 'em Uncles for lack of a better word -- a contraction, of sorts, for "unknown apples."

There's firewood to cut and split, too. Much of a massive maple blew over during a summer storm down near the old Connor-Wood house in the bottom, which loses more of its roof and siding each season, and the woods are full of dead-on-the-stump, leaning-and-looking-to-make-widows, fallen locusts.  Those are prizes -- good firewood, already dried most of the way, and ready to burn this winter once they have a little more chance to dry out and get ready to make some heat.  I've alerted a couple of friends that we'll have a firewood gathering in a few weeks, felling, cutting and splitting enough of these old trees to help each of us get through the winter.  We somehow get a lot more wood cut, split and loaded into various trucks and trailers than we would working alone, even without the distractions of story-telling, leg-pulling and spleen-venting that can go on when gents of a certain age get together amidst the roar and clink of chainsaws, wood splitters and mauls and wedges. We'll top off the day once the work is done by a sip or two of a noble whiskey -- in front of a roaring chiminea, of course, to toast the remains of the day, solve world problems, run down whatever crowd is in Washington lately and reflect on the glories of the season.  Bring it on.

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.