Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Goodbye, Doc

Not so long ago we were saying farewell to Earl Scruggs, the Cleveland County boy who revolutionized the playing of the 5-string banjo with his rapid-fire picking.  Scruggs died March 28 at 88, a devastating loss to the world of music.

Now there's word that Arthel "Doc" Watson of Deep Gap died May 29 at age 89. The one-two punch of losing these electrifying musicians who developed their own styles of picking and set new standards of excellence for an amazing variety of music is just too much to bear.  Watson, blind since infancy, taught himself how to flat-pick on the guitar in ways that sometimes made folks forget about the fiddle or the banjo in traditional Southern Appalachian music.

I never knew these men personally except by the many hours I spent listening to their music and watching them perform on TV.  But I was always impressed by how each developed their God-given talents in ways that ought to be inspiring to those of us who just fool around with musical instruments, and to those who are already masters of the strings.

And I always liked the story of how Watson got his nickname. An announcer somewhere observed that Arthel was a hard name to say, and asked those in the audience if they could think of a nickname. Someone, no doubt thinking of Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Doctor Watson, shouted "Doc", and Doc Watson he became.

But my favorite Doc Watson story has nothing to do with music.  The late Hugh Morton once told me that Life Magazine had assigned him to take photographs of Watson soon after he was discovered as the big-time musician he would prove to be.  Morton drove over to Deep Gap to shoot the picture but no one came to the door when he knocked.   Morton hollered for Watson, and heard Watson holler back from around the house.  Morton walked around the corner and saw Watson up on a two-story ladder, hammer in hand, repairing some bad siding.  "Hand me that board down yonder, will you, Hugh?" Watson asked.

Makes you think: If a blind man can get up on a ladder and fix a house and revolutionize the way a guitar is played, what can he not do?

Goodbye, Doc.  Say hey to Earl for me.

Monday, May 21, 2012

That lucky old sun

After three days on the coast down near Cape Lookout, I was nearly freezing to death and hadn't seen the sun since Tuesday afternoon well up in the Piedmont.  Obviously if I was going to get some natural Vitamin D and let these 65-year-old fingers thaw out, I was going to have to get back to the mountains.

Perhaps I exaggerate about the freezing.  But if you've got arthritis bad -- and there isn't any good way to have it -- and the wind is blowing the tops off the chop out in Taylor Creek and on Back Sound, it feels like extended winter.  So well before dawn I hauled out of Beaufort and headed the back way over to Cherry Point, soaring over the Intracoastal Waterway at the high-rise bridge next to Bock Marine and scooting over the ancient Harlow Canal, a waterway forgotten to nearly everyone but local folks and historians who collect any fact that rises in the road.  But it wasn't until I crossed the Trent at New Bern and the Neuse at Kinston that I began to warm up. The iPod was on and I listened to Ray Charles sing about that lucky old sun, and the day got brighter and better.

Dunno why that is. In these hills we just had the mildest winter in memory, except for one hail storm that is fetching some of my neighbors new roofs or new paint jobs on their trucks. A feller who visits the coast in May ought not get cold, though now that I think about it, maybe it was that tramping around in a restored wetlands up at North River Farms that made the joints ache so. When I first went up there 10 years ago, they had just planted little seedlings.  Now it's a wetlands forest with trees 30 feet high or more.  The sun must have shone on that land a lot this last decade.

Sitting here a few minutes ago, I noticed how much the sun's season had changed on us up in the hills.  In the dead days of early winter, the sun would rise above Phil Wynn's log cabin way over on the ridge, and strike me in the corner of the eye around 8 a.m. or so. That was my signal to quit writing and go down for a cup of coffee.  In 20 minutes or so, the sun would have moved on and stopped sending lasers at my eyes.

 Today, pushing six months later, the sun now comes up over the ridge to the west of Bill Day's house.  The lasers hit my wife in the eye at the breakfast table, and it was then that I realized the sun was now hitting us first from the east rather than the southeast.  Time moves on, slow when you're watching, but fast when you turn your back. That sun has done a lot of rolling around in these parts of heaven.

So I looked up the lyrics, and found out that song is durn nigh old as I am. It was written in 1949, when I was 3, by Haven Gillespie with music by Beasley Smith.  Everybody who was anybody has covered it. Frankie Laine.  Frank Sinatra. Sam Cooke. Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash. Dean Martin. Brian Wilson, sort of. Aretha Franklin. Willie Nelson.

But in my book if you want to hear it right, listen to Ray Charles: 

I know that lucky old sun
Has nothin' to do
But roll around heaven all day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How far is that in smoots?

Boy, the things you learn noodling about on the Internet.  Just last evening I was taking my quarterly look at Google Earth to see if the techno-wise folks out yonder in la-la land have updated their satellite pictures of the Virginia mountain where I live.  And, as has been the case for more than five years, the answer is still no. The last satellite picture of our mountaintop is still from January 2007 -- George Bush was still in the White House then and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression had yet to occur.  Houses have been built, occupied and burned down in that time. And even rebuilt. Google still thinks my address is about 1.5 miles west of where it is, and has been, for years.

But Google Earth is still mighty handy.  I was pondering how far our farm was from a neighbor, and when you use the online ruler, you can find out exactly how far you are from one point to another -- in feet, in yards, in statute miles, in nautical miles and even in smoots.

Smoots?  Yup.  Turns out that the good folks at Google may not have much interest in posting up-to-date Satellite pictures, but they have a good sense of humor. And they've given Google Earth users the opportunity to measure distances in smoots.

See, the smoot is a unit of measure -- five feet, seven inches -- based on the height of a certain MIT student in the 1950s.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

The smoot (play /ˈsmt/) is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot, a fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 lay on the Harvard Bridge (between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts), and was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the bridge."

Evidently they measured the entire length of the bridge, marking off regular smoots.  When the bridge was renovated years later, the engineers doing the work etched the smoots into the structure's surface. The bridge was determined to be 364.4 smoots long, plus one ear.  There's a picture somewhere on the 'net of that proviso.

Ol' Oliver Smoot was a cousin of a Nobel Prize winner, George Smoot, and later became a lawyer of some distinction, becoming head, naturally, of the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization.  Well, who better?

I like the fact that I can measure my place from, say, Jim Newlin's ridge house or Barnie Day's farmhouse in smoots. For the record, it's 3.03 miles, as the crow flies, to Jim's place and 1.7 miles to Barnie's.  But in smoots, it's 2,865.3 smoots to Jim's and 1,603.39 smoots to Barnie's.   Imagine the conversation coming to an astonished standstill when you drop those little facts.  Or when you convert those measurements to dog smoots.

Wellsir, it gets better.  Wikipedia has as much fun as Google does when it comes to measurements. Turns out, at least according to Wikipedia, that there are other, um, humorous standards of measurement. There's the scientific term "barn," as in:

A barn is a serious unit of area used by nuclear physicists to quantify the scattering or absorption cross-section of very small particles, such as atomic nuclei.[9] It is one of the very few units which are accepted to be used with SI units, and one of the most recent units to have been established (cf. the knot and the bar, other non-SI units acceptable in limited circumstances).[10] One barn is equal to 1.0×10−28 m2. The name derives from the folk expression "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn", used by particle accelerator physicists to refer to the difficulty of achieving a collision between particles.

I didn't understand that, either.  But there's a rictus scale, a takeoff on the Richter Scale, to measure reader reaction in gapes, gasps, yawns or other mouth-dropping reactions to news stories about earthquakes.

There's the Helen scale, to measure beauty, after Helen of Troy, who was so beautiful that she had "the face that launched a thousand ships," so that "1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship."

And there are canards, "a unit of quackery created ... in the need for a fractional fruitloopery index... to replace the old Crackpot Index....Quack words include 'energy', 'holistic', 'vibrations', 'magnetic healing', 'quantum'. These words are usually borrowed from physics and used to promote dubious health claims."

The list goes on.  It may indicate that a great number of people have nothing better to do than to think up these things. Or to write blogposts about them. And you'd be right.
I understand the forces that sometimes move men to name units of length. Bob Auman, then the farm editor of the Greensboro Daily News, used to produce long takes of copy by pasting together the newsprint sheets we typed stories on about 45 years ago in the Gate City of the South.  His standard unit for a column was about seven sheets pasted together end to end -- thus, an auman.  
Or the way they'd figure it up at MIT, approximately 1 smoot.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Fetching up in a sea of grass

Near as I can tell we last saw that long-point gardening spade in the summer of 2008, and in time I forgot about it.  I think it was last used to plant an apple sapling on a hillside in a little meadow that got mowed no more than once a year.  In those days our only mower was a badly beat-up off-brand rotary mower we pulled behind an underpowered tractor.  It had hit so many rocks, stumps and roots over the years that it was more nicks than blade, but it would knock down the grass if you mowed slowly enough. We had it set a little high to avoid all those Patrick County rocks, which appear to mate each winter and push up a new generation of rocks each spring.

Sometime last fall when we were putting the gardens to bed for the year, I mowed up a wire mesh cylinder that I think my father-in-law had put around the sapling, only to have it all fall over in that horrendous winter of '09-'10 when snow and ice and cold did so much damage to trees and shrubs and blueberry bushes.  Even the weeds and the vines took a long time to recover, and I didn't get around to mowing that field again until late 2011. The ruckus that wire mess made when the mower picked it up was pretty much like the sound the transmission of a 1952 Nash Rambler makes when it shreds itself into small pieces after a teenager spends too much time trying to pop a wheelie. But that's another story.

So with the remnants of that wire cleared out of the way, it didn't occur to me there might be something else down in the grass.  If it had, I wouldn't have used the new twin-bladed finish mower on that part of the field.  It was a lovely day, warm with just a bit of breeze, and the mower was cutting a fine six-foot swatch of neat grass, leaving in its wake a smooth stream of precisely cut clippings.  I was composing letters in that part of the brain that lets you think of interesting things while you are doing something else, and dreaming of sailing, moving along in a sea of grass, close-hauled at about three knots, and not even thinking of fetching up on a shoal.

Wellsir, there's nothing to wake you up from a daydream like mowing up a shovel someone left in a field a long time ago. I was just about  to tack the rig on the complementary course back toward the springhouse when the rigging shook and the sounds WHAMMO! BLAMMO! KATHUNK!, followed by a helicoptering whop-whop as part of an ash-handled spade went helicoptering out over the countryside, woke me up.

The business end of the spade was unharmed and intact, but most of the wooden handle was over by a blue spruce.  Bits of the plastic handle itself were in various places.  I raised the mower and found a couple of nicks but nothing broken on the mower itself.  It reminded me of other things I had mown up over the years -- how a plastic milk jug will sound like the towers of Jericho falling, and how a child's tennis racket getting chewed up by a Toro will rattle your nerves. And one time down at the coast I picked up a crab pot right in front of Sharkey's bar -- and wound up sliding sideways into the dock with only, oh, about 500 people watching from the nearby deck. That pot was wrapped tighly around the propeller of my outboard motor, and it took hours just to snip it free.  Had about 15 dings in a fairly new stainless steel prop, too. Once was enough, I thought. Wrongly.

  It's a good caution, I guess, to remember that still waters and still grasses can harbor all sorts of troublesome things -- and if you aren't expecting trouble, it will come to you mighty quick. Noisy, too.

I wonder if I can equip this tractor with a depth sounder and maybe a metal detector, too?