Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lessons from Core Sound

Way Down East in North Carolina, the backyard boat builders in the watery neighborhoods just off Core Sound have for generations been fashioning works of art out of Atlantic White Cedar, old Chrysler engines and buckets of white paint .  They made Core Sound workboats -- sturdy craft that could ply the often rough, sometimes shallow waters indigenous to Eastern Carolina, pulling out late Sunday and fishing all week and coming back in on Friday to unload, mend nets, take on ice and bait and get ready to head out again.

I was thinking about these fine old craft when I ran across a short piece on the America's Cup sailing races this fall out on the West Coast.  As I've confessed many a time, I'm in love with boats. They have paupered me, driven me to the point of physical exhaustion and challenged me in bad storms, but I am drawn to them as surely as moths to the flame.  Nothing prettier than a graceful sheerline -- that swooping curve of a handsome hull as it swoops back from bow to stern.  Nothing more graceful than a sailing vessel on a brisk wind, reaching round the bend and up the bay. Nothing more peaceful than  sleeping in the V-berth on the hook in a protected anchorage on a quiet night.

But these new America's Cup vessels are ugly descendants of the boatbuilders' arts -- carbon fiber spars and rickety-looking pontoon hulls that despite their ungainly looks can fly along at 40 miles an hour.  I got hooked on sailing at about 8 miles an hour and on workboats that move along at maybe 10 or 12 knots on a following sea.  Those speeds give you time to think about what you are doing and where you are going and, occasionally, even the chance to enjoy yourself.  But 40 miles an hour in a mud-fence-ugly craft that can cost many millions of dollars and, according to one account, collapse in upon itself when the strain from a harsh sea overcomes the engineering feats of these fast sleds, raises a good question: what the hell?

So it is that I picked up up Lawrence S. (Larry) Earley's new book from UNC Press, "The Workboats of Core Sound," with a sense of relief.  It is a loving look at the fishing boats and other craft that came from masters of the building arts way down yonder near the sea and just around the ditch from such places as Thorofare Bay and Cedar Island.

 It still astonishes me what these builders can do with an old handsaw and some beat-up hammers and a few chisels handed down from grandfather to father to son -- and all without written plans. Many of these folks still build by what they call "rack-of-the-eye," maybe with a homemade measuring device called a "story stick" that is used to keep things in perspective as they put together a craft that will minimize the blowback from a cold spray in a nasty chop out on the sound.

Others have written about how they developed the Carolina Flare -- a severe curve in the bow planking that forces spray to the side and not to the stern where fishermen must work all day in a harsh environment.

 Or the iconic Core Sound rounded stern, making it possible for weary fishermen to keep hauling heavy cord nets back into the boat when there are fish to pull in and no time to fool with such things as sharp corners and things that get in the way.

There's one other reason I'm grateful to Core Sound builders.  For years, Core Sound fishermen built crab pots out of heavy gauge wire mesh.  Some years ago they figured out other uses for the wire mesh, and started building and marketing the Core Sound Crabpot Christmas Tree -- foldable, up to 8 feet in height, with as many as 1,000 lights.  We ordered a six-footer in October from our friends at Village Hardware in Oriental, just off the lower Neuse River, and got it lit up on the deck.  Here's how that Core Sounder looks at about 3,100 feet elevation.  And Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 5, 2013

A 55-year old woodworking project, almost done

It started out a long time ago in shop class at Charles Brantley Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro.  The shop teacher was a wiry gent who drove a long, two-door Cadillac coupe, wore loud sportscoats, had wavy black hair slicked back with some kind of goo and what Jimmy Buffet would have called "a pencil-thin mustache, the Boston Blackie kind."  He was a nice man overseeing a bunch of rambunctious 13- and 14-year-olds whose hormones were driving them up one wall and down the other.  Girls in those days took Home Economics.  Boys took Shop, Probably a good thing they weren't in the same room.

Part of the curriculum was to make something. Most of us made a lot of sawdust, sometimes sprinkled with a little blood after failing to heed warnings about sharp tools and goofing off. A few already had a talent for making a piece of furniture, and some never would have any conception of what it was all about.  I was somewhere in between.  My Dad has a bunch of hand tools, dating to the days during the Great Depression when he had worked in the car department of  his second-cousin's elevator manufacturing business.  He helped fashion oak, mahogany and maple elevator car interiors that went into office buildings, courthouses, banks, colleges and other places around the Piedmont.

I think my shop class would have been in 1958, maybe 1959.  I remember buying the walnut planks from the school for a few bucks, running them through the big planer, jointing the edges, gluing them up with the heavy clamps and then pondering how to fashion the resulting 35-inch by 15-inch slab into a top for a coffee table in our family's den.  I ran out of time and figured I'd finish it at home, then botched the job terribly by digging a deep divot with a rogue disk sander not intended for finish-sanding a table top, or anything else.  It was more of a grinder, and it taught me a hard lesson:  Ignorance is bad.

I gave up on woodworking for a while, got interested in basketball and cars and girls and forgot all about that slab of walnut.  But my Dad, patient as ever, would haul it out every now and then and spend an hour hand-sanding the entire top while puffing through four or five bowls-full of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco.  Funny thing: he always looked like he was enjoying it. He used boiled linseed oil to finish the top when it got relatively smooth, and found four coffee table legs of maple that he could stain walnut-colored and mount on iron brackets screwed to the underside of the slab.  And for the next 34 years or so that coffee table reposed in my parents' den in Greensboro. It held Time magazines, Saturday Evening Posts, coffee cups, African violets, readers' feet, iced tea glasses, the afternoon Greensboro Record and morning Greensboro Daily News, a jar of Starlight Mints and all the other things that Americans plop down on a coffee table without another thought.

In 1994, after both my parents had died, I unscrewed the legs and put the now-battered and water-marked top up in the rafters of the workshop I had built in Raleigh. It came out of storage for a few years when our daughter Mary needed a table in Columbia, S.C., and came home again when she moved out west.  It went back into storage, but I knew someday I'd find another use for it.

That day came not so long ago. We have been using as a coffee table a lovely old walnut dove-tailed chest, aglow with the patina that comes with 80 or 100 years of reasonably careful use.  But it was so low that when we put crackers and cheese on the coffee table for guests, our French Brittany Spaniel, Sadie, would lay her head sideways on the table top and lick away to her heart's content. Cute, but not appetizing, at least for humans.  We had to find a way to raise the elevation of that table -- and it occurred to me I could use the old slab if I could make a frame to sit atop the old chest and raise the cracker-and-cheese elevation.
The old chest, with top right at dog level
 But the slab needed several things.  It needed to be flat. It needed to be square. It needed to be wider. And it needed to be totally resurfaced to remove one white 8-inch water ring, where an overfilled violet no doubt left its calling card, one black ring caused by who knows what, and one mysterious brownish smudge that had no particular shape other than blobish.

The slab, about to be ripped apart from some serious body work

I knew the rings would never sand out -- not with any sanders we have. And while the top was 15 inches wide, my planer will accommodate only a plank about 12 inches wide. So the answer to remaking the top was to rip it lengthwise into two pieces, cut an additional plank for more width, plane each side, re-joint the edges and glue it all up.  Then make a frame that would sit around the top of the old chest, with a little ledge just inside, so the new, larger, higher-than-dog-tongue top could be placed on the chest when needed, and removed when the larger top was not needed.

It took at lot of passes of about one-32nd of an inch to get each board flat again -- and doing so required nearly as much planing of the underside.  So into my DeWalt planer disappeared this stamped inscription, no doubt imprinted on the back of one of the boards before it was delivered in the late 1950s from the lumberyard to the school: "Industrial Arts Department, Charles B. Aycock Junior High School, Greensboro N.C."  I'm sorry that stamp had to go, but if the piece was to be uniformly the same thickness, out it had to go. 

Now squared, planed, edged, glued, sanded and attached to a frame made from walnut I bought 36 years ago off a farm in Wake Forest, N.C., the new larger tabletop is about to get its second coat of spar varnish -- enough, I hope, to resist watermarks and tall enough to deter hungry dogs looking for a taste of whatever the grownups are having.  So after 55 years or so, the old walnut slab is new again and back at work. 
The new removable top, sitting under a nice wet coat of varnish this morning

As Forrest Gump would have said, "Well, one less thing."

Or, as they say in Charlotte, "Viola!"

Sunday, November 24, 2013

'You Can't Hurt Ham' -- especially with this recipe for the best ham you ever ate

In his 2012 album "Music to My Ears," Ricky Skaggs has a funny song about bluegrass music pioneer Bill Monroe's fondness for ham -- and what happened late one night on the bus between gigs.  "Mon," as his friends called Monroe, was hungry as they raced through the evening but nothing was open at that late hour. A banjo player who had just joined the Blue Grass Boys tour volunteered that his momma had sent him off with a bag of country ham biscuits -- but the bag was getting a little greasy and the ham moldy and none of it looked like much.  In Skaggs' and Gordon Kennedy's lyrics, the great bandleader and inventor of the high lonesome sound didn't care what it looked like: "Mon said 'Boy, hand me that bag/You know you can't hurt ham.'"  At least one reviewer predicted "You Can't Hurt Ham" will become a bluegrass standard in due time.

I understand what Monroe meant about not hurting ham, but I also know this: You can fix ham, and you can fix pretty good ham. But if you want to fix a great ham, you need a sure-fire way to do it. And for that I've learned to go with the Wrap-Cook Ham method championed by my friend Barnie Day of Meadows of Dan, VA., which he first learned from Robert Crumpton Sr. of Person County, N.C. It's not only sure-fire and delicious; it's also easy.

I've written about this several times before -- first in The Charlotte Observer during my newspapering days not long before Christmas 2010.  But then I realized that Christmas isn't the only time to do up a ham just right. There's Thanksgiving as well, plus any other time of the year, holiday or not.  So I'm passing it along right now so that you have plenty of time to find you a ham and cook it up for the crowd.

Now, I could explain it in my own words, but Barnie's story is the read deal, and a good read to boot, so you can't miss. Herewith, the Hon. Barnie K. Day:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing.

Postscript:  A year ago the former Party Doll Strickland and I were heading out West a few days before Christmas to spend the holidays in Boise, ID with our son John and his girlfriend Juta.  You'd have a hard time finding a Clifty Farms ham in Idaho, but Slaughter's Grocery in Floyd, VA. often has a bunch of them, so we volunteered to fly the ham out West with us. We sacked it up in a knapsack and drove to Charlotte to catch our plane.  The Transportation Security Administration folks ran that knapsack through their scanner and got real quiet and real studious for awhile, concentrating on what in the world was that thing on their TV screen.  They drew a crowd of other TSA workers. Brows furrowed, fingers pointed and muffled conversations ensued -- until a TSA supervisor came scuttling over and said in a loud voice, "I know what it is, it's a ham somebody's taking with them. My momma gets one every year and takes it back to New York with her because they don't have anything like it up there."

We had a good laugh, and the Merriest of Christmases.  I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a memorable holiday season this year.

Read more here:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bringing the boys home

The uncle I never knew died 95 years and one month ago today, going over the top on the Hindenburg Line in a forgotten place in 1918, just a few weeks before the end of World War 1.  If I read through the lines correctly on the military report, he practically vanished when hit by a shell early that morning. Still, there were some remains, and thus he was buried in a military cemetery somewhere in France.

My mother -- nearly 12 years old when her brother was killed -- told me how her father nearly lost everything he had while trying to bring his son back home to the family plot in Anderson, S.C.  He made innumerable train trips to Washington to plead with the men who sent Victor St. Clair Minor overseas to at least do him the honor of returning him back home. Several years after the war, St. Clair and a few of his effects came home and he was buried in the little Baptist churchyard where our family tended their dead. I have a few of St. Clair's things -- one of his dog tags, a little bronze container that might have kept oil for his machine gun crew, and a couple of photographs.

I was thinking about St. Clair a week ago on Veteran's Day -- the date of Nov. 11 was chosen for Veterans Day because that's the date the War to End All Wars ended.  While looking for something else I had come across my dog tags from my days in the Army in the late 1960s.  And I thought about others of our clan who served under arms.  Another uncle was a radioman in World War II, and St. Clair's older brother, Charlie, served in two campaigns as a cavalryman.  The man for whom I was named, John Monie, served in the Confederacy and was taken prisoner. My great grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Betts, was a Civil War chaplain whose diary records how he held wounded and dying men of both sides in places like Gettysburg.

So far as I know St. Clair was the only one of our family whose return to the United States was delayed after World War I.  We were lucky, because so many American families never found out what happened to their loved ones. Sailors went to the bottom of the sea, out of reach for eternity, and a great many soldiers and airmen were buried in unmarked and still unfound graves -- when there were any remains to bury.

I've been reading Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945," third in his Liberation Trilogy. Atkinson is a superb reporter and writer, and his book is a fine piece of work. On pages 638, 639 and 640 I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I read about the unprecedented effort to bring the boys home after WW II. There were 270,000 identifiable American dead whose families were asked if they wanted the remains of their sons and brothers sent home, or interred in Europe with their comrades. More than 60 percent came home, at an average cost to the government of $564.50 each, Atkinson wrote. More than 5,000 began their journey aboard the Joseph V. Connolly, the first of 21 "ghost ships" that would bring the GIs home.  Thirty thousand Belgians, Atkinson went on, promised to look after the tens of thousands of Americans who would remain buried in Europe -- "'as if,' one man vowed, 'their tombs were our children's.'"

Bodies came off ships like the "Connolly" in New York and were loaded onto trains that would take them home. "Among those waiting was Henry A. Wright, a widower who lived on a farm in southwestern Missouri... One by one his dead sons arrived at the local train station." There was Sgt. Frank Wright, killed on Christmas Eve 1944; Private Harold Wright, who died in a German POW camp; and Private Elton Wright, who died in Germany just two weeks before the end of the war.  

"Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born," Atkinson wrote. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.... Thus did the fallen return from Europe..."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

'Wild Kingdom' up here

Since sometime in mid-summer we've known that things were a bit different this year on Belcher Mountain.  We had some photographic evidence from our friends the McCraws, a family of hunters from Mt. Airy who have been coming up here for years to hunt deer during the seasons and to scout for wildlife during the off-season.  They keep three deerstands up here, and use an automatic wildlife camera to see what's shaking.

Here's a picture of a critter they call "Mr. Grumpy," taken on Aug. 15 from a camera mounted on a tree a couple hundred feet west of my woodworking shop.

A few days ago Martha B. and our aging French Brittany Spaniel were walking across one of our fields and ran into one of the McCraws, sitting with his rifle by the old corncrib on a warm fall afternoon. She heard that "Mr. Grumpy" might in fact be a "Ms. Grumpy" -- one of four bears they have identified occupying the woods of our property, that of our out-of-town neighbor to our north and probably also that of the our old friends, the late Burke Davis and Judy Halliburton Burnett Davis, who had a lovely home constructed from old hand-hewn barn timbers across the road to our northwest.  We suspect it was one of these bears who tore up part of Burke's prized blueberry patch enclosure of chicken wire stretched on a steel frame last summer. Might have been the same bear that got into one of our blueberry patches in late summer and laid waste to parts of two old but productive blueberry bushes.

One of the McCraws said that in addition to the four bears there are innumerable deer, four coyotes and, in one eyepopping incident, a bobcat who plopped down in the grass within his view from one of the deerstands.  He said birds were flitting about, and when one of them made the mistake of lighting in the grass within reach of the bobcat, a paw whipped out, snatched the bird and became a quick snack for the cat.  These woods, they say, are getting to be something of "The Wild Kingdom."

A fellow who helps a lot of folks up here keep their plumbing in working order, dropped by the other evening to pass along that some creature had torn off the crawl-space access door to a house down the road, as well as raked his claws on some nearby pine trees.  He was giving that crawlspace a pretty wide berth for a little while, he said, just in case an impatient bear with a bad attitude had moved in and was looking for something else to claw to ribbons.

Saturday night we had finished burning a pile of brush and were making a final run to make sure the fire was out. As we drove the pickup along our driveway our headlights flashed on something we hadn't seen before -- two bucks with impressive racks fighting, or at least locking horns while a group of three does a hundred feet or so away watched in our hayfield.  I hated that we spoiled the show for the deer -- or interfered with whatever entertainment the deer had planned for that night. But it was riveting to watch in the few moments before all five deer took off for the nearby woods. Looked to me like those boys were having a fine old time, showing off for the girls and maybe hoping to get lucky. It was, after all, Saturday night in the Blue Ridge.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Glory in the Blue Ridge

I seem to take this same run of pictures every year. Can't help it.  The old house at the bottom, shaded by a magnificent old maple that has begun shedding its larger limbs every winter, sheltered Connors, Woods and other families through much of the 20th century. They were sturdy people in a sturdy old house that now gives up a few more planks and a bit more roofing tin to the prying winds and stinging rains that rage up the draw every so often.
Looking east along Belcher Mountain Road
Looking south toward Vesta
Looking southwest

Back view of the old house
  The old spring still puts out sweet water; some of the old farm buildings still stand while others slope and slump into the Patrick County clay, and the ancient apple trees still put out apples.  The deer do a good job of gnawing off the low-hanging fruit and cleaning up the deadfalls underneath as the old farm slowly puts itself to bed for the coming winter.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Old shipmates, asail on new seas

A long time ago, when we were green-as-grass sailors still attempting to fathom the differences between gudgeons and pintles and where to find the garboard strakes or why the running backstay on the starboard side wouldn't hold its tension, we fell in with a group of folks who over the years would become close friends, always ready to lend a hand, offer a bit of advice, or grab a bow line when trying to land in vicious crosswinds on an ugly day.

I don't suppose sailors are different in these respects from any other close-knit group of old friends. The good ones are always there in need, standing by with a helping hand but yet wary of intruding where their help was not really needed. After a while you might tend to take that for granted, but I have learned the only way to take it is in the deepest respect and admiration for what their friendship really means. It means the world.

This struck home the other day when we were sitting on a back row at St. Peter The Fisherman's Catholic Church in Oriental, down on the lower Neuse whether the waters are wider than at any point on the Mississippi, or so I have read.  It was a a Sunday Mass for our old friend Don Sinkiewicz, who died in March.  Don and his wife Sharon had been our next-door slipmates a long time ago at Kerr Lake, up near the N.C.-Virginia border, at Steele Creek Marina.  They had a 26-foot Erickson and we had just acquired an old 25-foot Coronado, and we needed to know a lot more about our vessel than we knew when we got it.  In his easy-going way, Don (and Sharon, too) helped us understand the things we were doing wrong and gently pointed us in the right directions -- when to let the genoa sheet fly during a tack, how to trim the mainsail on a beam reach, that sort of thing.  And he clued us in to the traditions of the local yacht club pig-pickins, when the ribs and chicken wings seemed to mysteriously disappear shortly before dinner.  They really weren't ribless pigs or boneless chickens we were cooking, he explained with a smile; you just have to get there early enough to see 'em and grab one or two before they migrate elsewhere.

And then there was Ed Bilicki, a quiet man who could do anything in the world and who rarely spoke until everyone else had had their say -- and who then would come up with the most intelligent thing said or the best advice or the pithiest comment in that whole discussion.  He and his wife Rainy (their boat named, of course, "Rainy Day") brought a boatload of common sense and simple solutions to a pursuit that many find way too confusing and far too costly to pursue.  But Ed and Rainy had gotten through lean days when Ed was an enlisted man in the Air Force -- before the military sent him to college to become a meteorologist and an officer -- and they showed how working people could afford to maintain and sail a vessel and bring it back without tearing it up.

Ed was in many ways the most competent man I knew.  His scientific background seemed to be built around an innate understanding of machines, materials, processes and outcomes.  Rainy would ask him to build something she had seen somewhere and in due time, it would appear -- intricate marquetry, complicated joinery, ingenious gizmos with compound angles that would fold away neatly into some corner of the main saloon or a crowded cockpit.  He sometimes made what you needed and installed it while you were away, and waved off whatever he had done with a boyish smile and a change of conversation. Men and women loved him for his easy ways and constant and thoughtful friendship and valuable personal counsel. 

One day last year Ed and Rainy lost their adult son to a sudden heart attack.  I have often wondered how parents are able to deal with the loss of a child, and I cannot imagine the unending heartbreak.  And just 17 months later, Ed had his own heart attack, one that led to his death Monday after the best efforts of modern medicine and constant vigil by Rainy, their daughter Heather and a long line of  family members and friends who visited at Rex Hospital.  

We sat up late with a bottle or three the other night, on the screen porch of old shipmates in the quiet coastal village where Ed and Rainy and others of our sailing crowd now live, and where Don and Sharon kept their handsome trawler "Time Out." We relived old days with fine friends, telling stories funny and sad, remembering kindnesses from long ago, ancient jokes, dockside rituals, certain libations consumed, rarely but sometimes to excess, talking about some of the finest people we have ever known.  We are the richer and wiser for having known Don and Ed and another dozen or so boating friends who made our lives fuller -- and who showed us grace under pressure as well as elegance under sail.  We will miss them, mightily. Godspeed.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The shutdown vacation -- pretty dadgum good despite the feckless fools in D.C.

  The woman in the lobby of the boat rental office at Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell was looking frantic.  She and her husband had just driven a couple of days to pick up their houseboat rental for the week, with family and friends joining them the next day before they took off up the lake.

  And the lady behind the counter was repeating the unfathomable:  You should get off the dock as quickly as you can, she was saying -- preferably by midnight. Congress had just failed to reach agreement on ways to avoid a shutdown, and the rental agency was being told by federal officials to allow no one to leave the dock the next morning.  If you're still tied up, we can't let you go out.

  The woman couldn't process what she was hearing, and thought my advice was crazy. But what I told her was this: Get what you have and who you have on the boat, untie, and move up the lake. You can figure out later where and how to pick up the rest of your party when they arrive, but don't stay at the dock any longer than you have to.

 I'm not sure she understood, but she was coming to realize what the feckless fools in Washington hell-bent on trying to stop Obamacare were doing to her and many thousands, maybe millions of Americans: fouling up their short-term plans, all because of a stupid game of political one-upsmanship that would not only keep travelers out of National Parks but stop mortgage deals from going through, keep new airplanes on the ground for lack of final paperwork signatures, put many federal employees out of work (and require some to keep working, but without pay at least temporarily) and in short, make a spectacle of an America badly led, if that is the right word, by a dysfunctional government.

  The shutdown affected my crowd as well, though not as adversely as some.  We had planned for more than a year to visit western national parks, winding up at a place I have longed to see for many years -- Zion National Park.  We drove out from Meadows of Dan, taking our time and seeing places and things we had never taken the time to see:  Robert Western World honky tonk in Nashville, the Arch in St. Louis, the final home game for the Royals in K.C., dinner with our granddaughter in Boulder and the spectacular drive through the Rockies.

  In Salt Lake City we rented a 32-foot RV -- much like a boat on wheels, with its 120-volt and 12-volt systems, the on-board generator, the balky propane oven -- and picked up our daughter, who lives in Layton, and son, who flew down from Boise.  Over the next week we stopped in Moab to see Arches National Park, a bit of Canyonlands, Dead Horse State Park and on to Lake Powell, where we parked the bus, rented a 19-foot powerboat and went roaring way up the lake to look for ancient ruins and petroglyphs left by early artists thousands of years ago.  It was when we got back that we found out the government was shutting down -- and altering our plans.

  So Zion was out, but there's a world of things to see in Utah -- particularly because our daughter's boyfriend, who had been tramping around the hills of the west since his boyhood -- knew where to go and how to get there.  So we saw most of Capitol Reef National Park (there's a major highway through it that the government couldn't shut down) as well as parts of Bryce Canyon (there's a way to brink of the canyon, just behind Ruby's Inn less than a mile) and some fabulous state parks -- Kodachrome State Park in particular -- and a hair-raising ride along the razorback ridges of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  You haven't thoroughly sweated through until you've driven a big bus with what seems like 6 feet of play in the steering wheel on a windy day along a seemingly narrow track without even a hint of guard rails along the way!  And the ride through Dixie National Forest -- so named in 1905 or so because it seemed as warm there as a day in the Old South -- was gorgeous, aspens ablaze up above 8,000 feet and every mile another landscape portrait you'd be happy to have hanging in your den.
  The shutdown was hurting a lot of folks, including those who run small businesses and depend upon tourism this time of year to help them through the lean months when roads are frozen and no one is traveling much.  But we also found what we have seen so often in this country: Friendly, determined people making the best of a trying situation, helping one another out, passing along advice on where to go and what to do while those who run the federal government continued to bicker and prolong a needless and ultimately useless shutdown.  We had a wonderful time, saw things we never quite imagined, brought home priceless memories, and made plans to go back west in a couple of years for more. But we know better than to trust the federal government to keep things on track.  Thank goodness for state parks!

Some pictures:
Martha B. and Mary at Arches

Jason and Mary at Kodachrom State Park

Jutas and John at Arches

The bus driver and Martha B. at Arches

Mary and Juta at the North and South Windows

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Spring projects almost done, now that fall is here

The plan last spring was to build a new garden shed and put a field fence around the garden. Then it rained, and summer never came except for that one afternoon in July, and it wasn't until not long ago that the earth began firming up again.

OK,now it's concrete.  I fully understand how the ruts of covered wagons heading west can still be seen a century and more later.  We still have ruts in the garden from that soggy day when I took the bush hog in there to mow down the feral weeds and locusts that had shot up from the never ending monsoon.  I expect they will be there for another six months -- a liability for a feller trying to finish stretching the last of the fence and add a couple steel gates.

One day last week, I snipped the last of the 12-gauge wires and drilled the holes for the L-shaped hinge screws and hung the gates. Simple as that, now that the field has stopped tugging the boots off anyone who walks near it.  So the fences stand more or less vertically, the gates swing as intended and the garden cleanup for the fall has begun.  I've mowed out most of the sorry-looking tomatoes, sorry-looking broccoli, sorry-looking okra, sorry-looking squash vines and the sorry-looking-I-don't-know-whats, and begun removing most of the gizmos that held up the foliage that never really bore anything edible.  Also mowed around the asparagus patch and the blueberry patches, and need to get some mulch on the asparagus ferns before cold sets in.

A bear, or something big and surly, I think, got into our best blueberry patch and laid waste to a couple of bushes, so I've  got some pruning to do there, and if there's time I'm going to get started on transplanting some blueberry bushes from the wrong side of the creek to the west-facing patch. But most of the spring's projects are now about done, so I'm only about six months behind, and catching up.  And beside, wood's up, split and stacked, just awaiting the first cold day.  Time moves on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ghostly ruins on the Rappahannock

Since I was a little boy I had heard stories about the old homeplace of my grandmother's family.  It had a name -- perhaps Four Chimneys, or maybe it was Two Chimneys -- but most folks in my family called it Towles Point, not far from where the broad Rappahannock opened onto the Chesapeake Bay.
It had been the place where my great-grandmother, Margaret Delaney Towles, had been born in 1844 and where my grandmother, Mary Atkinson Monie Betts, had perhaps visited her grandparents sometime during her 103-year lifetime since her birth in 1876.

It had been, according to to an aging volume called Virginia Homes and Churches,  "not only one of the oldest houses in Virginia, but is remarkable for having continued for more than two hundred years in the possession of one family." Here's a page from the book that shows what the house looked like when it was still standing:
It was built in 1712 by Henry Towles, and it was occupied until 1933, when my grandmother would have been 57.  Sometime after that the house fell into disrepair, and eventually collapsed. The old ornamental iron gateway disappeared into someone's possession, and the property became overgrown and tangled with the encroaching forest.  My cousin Sid Paine and his brother Christopher had both visited the site decades ago and found a brick and a nail; they recalled there was little left of the place other than a chimney.  Martha B. and I had visited nearby in the 1990s and thought we had gotten to the right site, but all we could see was a jungle there on the banks of Towles Point, just inside Day Beacon 6 a few hundred yards out into the channel.

Then in June, while we were anchored on a sailing vessel with friends across the Rappahannock near Urbanna, I happened to notice on a nautical chart these words: "Towles Point -- submerged ruins" -- just about three miles east. That fired my imagination and made me want to look again. Maybe the foundation of the old house was underwater, or at least partially so.  So when my cousin Sid and his wife Elaine invited us to visit them in a time share at Williamsburg's Powhatan Resort last week, we agreed to make another visit. Towles Point appeared to be about a two-hour drive, give or take a dozen or so stoplights and stopsigns, from Williamsburg.

The ruins were not where we though they were, but they were right where they had been since the house was built 301 years ago.  Someone had bought the place, cleared the undergrowth, built a new house and garage nearby and, apparently, lovingly preserved the ruins, if that's the right phrase, to protect them for years ahead -- capping raggedy parts of the brick and mortar with new concrete, repointing some of the mortar and, I suspect, putting in one new mantle beam to help support what was left. The remaining ruins are well above the waterline and much of the northwest wall, with one standing chimney and at least three fireplaces, showing. Here's a view of the ruins as I first saw them across a wooden fence:

A placard on the bricks reads: "Towles Point Plantation.  Towles Family Home.  Occupied 1712-1933."  The place now belongs to a family from Richmond, according to records at the Lancaster County Courthouse.  I'm glad it's in their hands.  It is certainly better kept than we could have managed, and it still stands, at least in part, on a point of land in a region that has seen momentous events in American history occur on its waters and in its fields and forests. It remains a familiar landmark for the living and for the ghosts of the dead who first settled these parts more than three centuries ago.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Crisp around the edges lately

 Sometime in the past few weeks the wet stormy weather that had vexed us all year turned to something approaching perfection.  Cool days, mostly, with enough sun to remind you it's still late summer but enough nip to the breeze to remind you that autumn is coming on. Thermometer this morning read 53 degrees -- not cold, but enough to grab your attention.

It brought to mind a phrase from something we learned back in high school days in a writing class. I don't recall and couldn't Google up the author or the precise phrasing, but the line was its own form of perfection: "It was the kind of day October served up -- warm and soft in the middle and crisp around the edges."  That used to describe exactly the best days of October down in the Piedmont, but up here around 3,100 feet or so, we're having the best of the crisp around the edges part every day and it's only early September. 

Fine weather has allowed us to catch up on chores interrupted for eight or nine months by heavy rains, dense fogs and gooey ground.  We're about halfway around the old garden, stretching out some 300 feet of 1047 field fence (so called because it has 10 horizontal wires and it's 47 inches high) with a Rube Goldberg rig involving a portable dummy post bolted to the front of our 4WD RTV, two come-alongs and a pair of 45" angle irons bolted to the end of a piece of fencing as a kind of bracket to stretch the fence out tight.  Here's a quick look at the gizmo.
The lower corner

Stretching fence

We're also finding time to clean up some of the old buildings on the property, some of which are leaning badly.  The old homestead down in the bottom has begun losing its rusty metal roof, and siding has exposed a second-story room to the ravages of wind and rain. The first-floor ceiling below it has begun to let go, and I'm trying to salvage anything useful from the old place.
The old place, last October

Awaiting cleanup

 A couple days ago I sorted through the old barnwood that we've stored on the front porch there for years, and I was amazed, once again, to find such wide boards in relatively good shape. I won't know for sure until I plane off the silvered outside wood, but in the past many of these boards have turned out to be American Chestnut -- cut down in the 1920s and 30s after the blight came through, and government officials urged that all trees be brought down before the blight ruined them for any use atall.   I've got some 16 inch-wide planks of what I think is chestnut, as well as some smaller stuff that might be cherry.  Years ago I planed down some barn board and was stunned to find some lovely cherry -- rich in color and still sound beneath the 1/8 inch weathered grain on the outside -- that was used for siding on a corn crib or some such farm shed.

These old boards are treasures of sorts.  They stood up to decades of heavy weather, witnessed the joys and tragedies of generations of farm families and still await further use as sturdy tabletops, chair legs or picture frames.  That'll take some study, figuring out how to make the best use of wood that grew up on this property, helped feed and shelter the hardy folk who lived here and is still good for generations more.  Mute though those boards are, they bear witness to vivid stories of life on the mountain.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I'll have a Red Oak, thanks, if it's all the same to you

The woods up here have gone silent again after a month of the roar of chainsaws, bucket truck, industrial chipper, tracked grinder, log splitter, splitting mall, steel wedge and kindling hatchet chewing up broken trees, dead trees, live trees, widowmakers, raggedy limbs, a billion or six leaves, old stumps and, I guess, about 400 or so billets of locust, beech, maple and oak that will eventually go into the soapstone stove and up our chimney over the next couple of years.

About an hour ago we finished stacking the last of the red and white oak that will season over the next year and provide a good bit of our home heating in the winter of 2014-15.  I've been splitting old rounds of maple and oak since early June, the last produce of the destructive winter of 2010 and its serial ice and snow storms that wrecked so many of the lovely old hardwoods on this farm.  We had so much firewood, and so little chance to burn any of it after a summer lightning strike reduced our house (and our first soapstone stove) to ashes and molten lumps of hard stuff, that it has lasted us through the first two winters after rebuilding the new house. It still leaves us with a cord and a half of wood to start the upcoming heating season.

I've split a lot of wood over the years, much of it with maul and wedge, but more recently with the help of Messers. Briggs and Stratton and the miracle of the hydraulic ram.  It's the kind of gizmo every old boy loves: It's painted red, it makes a big racket and it makes smaller stuff out of bigger stuff. And when you finish, the idea of a cold beer sounds real good.

A lot of the stuff was near our house, and most of that stuff was maple, beech and locust -- including a fair amount of dead locust.  Locust makes fine firewood, if the carpenter ants or whatever they are haven't already reduced it to powder. I spent a couple weeks splitting the stuff near the house, loading it onto a trailer and hauling it to our woodlot to be stacked. A lot of the locust looked like ant resorts, so much of that went to the burn pile.  No sense in bringing the ants inside for the winter, however briefly before burning.

A week ago I got to the brawnier stuff down by the barn -- white oak and red oak, mostly.  Some veteran loggers and ministers of the home fires will swear that white oak is a lot better firewood than red oak -- smells better and burns better, but is somewhat harder to split than red.  Here's my take on it: Maybe so, but the sheer pleasure of splitting red oak makes up for a lot, and properly seasoned, it burns just fine in my stove.

You'll find on the 'net all kinds of advice about splitting wood and burning it.  Some say splitting white oak is a lot easier if you wait until if freezes, but I found this gem: "Waiting till the 3rd full moon of the 5th month while the cicada's are singing doesn't seem to make any difference in how it splits."  I agree. It's stringy and sometimes splintery, but neither Mr. Briggs nor Mr. Stratton complain overlong about it.   So, like Admiral Nelson, I just go at it until it's done.

Red oak, on the other hand, will practically pop open if you hit it just right with a maul, and it splits smooth as silk on the log splitter.  I put 20-inch logs on it and the engine barely burped before producing a clean, straight-grained cut.  I nibbled some billets down to nearly square logs that made the stacking a heck of a lot easier on the old bad back and bad knees and bad arthritic hands that do the work around here.

So, as of mid-morning, I'm done for the year  when it comes to cutting, splitting and stacking. And I'm thinking seriously about that beer.  Trouble is, the one I want is down in Greensboro, where they make Red Oak lager.  Figure I can be down there in time for a late lunch, if only I could persuade these off-duty knees to get up and go, the slackers.

Update: Originally I called it Red Oak ale, but the good folks at Red Oak straightened me out: It's lager, which may be why I like it so much.  Bill Sherrill writes:

 "Red Oak is the Largest Lager Only Craft Brewery in America... We have never brewed an ale nor will we. Our Lagers are brewed with Heritage Malted Barley, Noble Aroma Hops, and Lager Yeast from Weihenstephen in Bavaria... The oldest brewery in the world... They have been brewing there since at least 1040 AD."


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Snagging that blue darter for the final out

My Dad told a story how he had once seen Shoeless Joe Jackson playing in an industrial league game out at Cone Field in Greensboro sometime in the 1920s or so, years after he was banned from organized baseball for his role in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.  Said he could still hit the horsehide like a man afire, and throw rifle-shots back into the infield after gathering in way-back flies in the outfield.

I dunno if there's any reliable record of Jackson playing in Greensboro, but I heard the same thing from folks who keep tabs on Greensboro history.  But I do recall that Dizzy Dean used to use a phrase that supposedly came from someone describing a Shoeless Joe Jackson line drive: a blue darter.  Wikipedia has this to say: "The term "blue darter" is a baseball term referring to a low line drive that "speeds viciously through the air, as though it were propelled by a blue gas flame."[3] The term came to be associated with the line drives hit by Shoeless Joe Jackson[4] and was popularized by ballplayer and sportscaster Dizzy Dean.[". 

Sunday evening along about dusk I felt like a seven-year-old kid again, watching Washington Nationals Third Baseman Ryan Zimmerman snag a genuine blue darter that was rocketing to his right near the third base line. Zimmerman went airborne, horizontal, and outstretched quicker than the hiccups, snared the ball and ended a wonderful baseball game as the struggling Nats beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-0 for their first-ever three-game sweep of the Phils in Washington. And then Pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who had just won his first complete-game shutout in the major leagues as more than 32,000 people in the stands went crazy, tipped his cap to Zimmerman and his magnificent catch. Good God Almighty, you ought to have seen it.

About 60 years ago, in 1953, see, I was planning on a big league career. Preferably with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but anywhere would be fine as long as it wasn't with the Yankees.  I had heroes all over the place -- Brooklyn's Edwin "Duke" Snider my favorite.  Pitcher Bob "Rapid Robert" Feller with the Cleveland Indians. Third Baseman Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers.  We didn't have a TV then and rarely but sometimes were able to tune in a game on the radio.  But we pored over the stats in the papers and longed for the day when the Dodgers would win and the Yankees wouldn't. There weren't many of them, seemed like.

Third base was my position, though I really wanted to be a pitcher.  I could throw fast but had no idea where it was going. So I clung to the notion that I could field the ball and get it to first in time. Did a few times -- sometimes having to swat the ball down before I could get a grip on it. And once snagging a not-quite-blue line drive to my right. Those shots seemed to come at you like little white bullets. And once on a bad hop I liked to have choked to death on a wad of Double Bubble that I swallowed when the ball up and popped me in the cheek.

So when the Phillies' Kevin Frandsen belted that blue darter at Zimmerman Sunday evening, my heart skipped three beats. I could only see the contrail of that ball before Zimmerman snapped it up and stomped the Phillies flat for the final time. Just exhilarating.

It's hard to feel like a kid again when the knees ache daily and you have to run hot water on your hands to make a fist some mornings and there's always something reminding you of the toll of 67 years of hard use.  But some close friends and I had been planning for a couple of months to get up to Washington to see a game, and by chance we landed on Sunday's 5 p.m.  game with the Phillies.  Could not have picked a better time to sneak away from the hills, meet up with new friends and sample the fare: cold beer, hot dogs, salted peanuts, and a lot of other things our doctors probably wouldn't be too happy about.  Well, she should have been there, dammit. I 'spect she would have enjoyed it, too.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Farm Report

And in all due time, as widely speculated but never quite forecast, the crust of the Earth has drained and firmed and begun to bear the weight of those who had hoped to grow one heckuva lot more vegetables this rainy season than the pitiful take that has come in so far.

The other day I picked two ripe tomatoes -- one the size of a ping pong ball, the other not quite so large as a juvenile handball.  That's it for the tomato crop so far. We have picked three zucchinis and four crookneck squash.  We have harvested about 19 cucumbers -- perhaps a fifth of what we normally would have gotten by now. The broccoli bolted early on. Rabbits got most of the lettuce while we waited for the water to quite burbling up out of the fence post holes where big husky posts would have held up the new field fence with anti-bunny wiring at the bottom.  And the peppers have been audibly gagging in their raised beds, pouring all their energy into whining and griping rather than growing into nice greens and reds as the Lord intended.

Still, we have hopes of getting that fence up sometime this year, perhaps just in time to help remind us where the garden was when the snow begins to fly and the ice spreads its slick sheet of sly surprises across the hillside.

And then there are the blueberries.  My gosh, what a crop -- the like of which have remained unseen in lo these many summers.  We picked about six quarts Sunday and after some nice sun Monday and a little more Tuesday, expect to haul in as much the next time we visit.  They are glorious, and a great many are just now showing signs of turning from green to blush to blue to that much preferred blue-black.  Bring it on.

And eight of our 10 or so elderly apple trees (including, I must acknowledge, at least one crabapple tree) on the farm are showing the first of the ripening fruit. There's at least one Golden Delicious, or something mightily like it, but the rest appear to be reds of one kind or another and I need to consult an expert on what we have -- and what to do with them.  Sometimes we go for years without seeing apples on these trees, so in this year of gardening disasters, it's reassuring to see these old boys putting out a crop. 

And marvel of marvels, I finally got around to planting the first of the apples that I've been planning on every since retiring more than two years ago. I know, I know, not the right time. But it has been so wet and so cool up here this summer that, after consulting a few authoritative sources in the Jessie Peterman Branch Library's admirable stacks, I bought a few potted varieties at Slaughters and got them in the ground with what I hope will be adequate fencing to keep out the deer.

Given that most of what I know I learned from the error side of trial-and-error study, I expect there will be lessons from this little venture, too, but at least the schooling has begun.  Say, will this be on the final?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pickles in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest

The little plastic gizmo ($4.95 from Farmer's Hardware in Floyd) tells the story every morning.  Today it's another 2 inches of rain. Since returning from the beach on June 28 we've had 17 inches of rain on our deck here, about 1,000 feet or so from where the Blue Ridge Escarpment rises above the southwestern Virginia Piedmont not far from the N.C.-Va. border. 

We've had more than a year's worth of rain in the first 6 1/2 months of 2013, and the prospect is for more here in the Blue Ridge Rain Forest.  The garden once again is under water -- this time a sheet of water pouring out of every dry spring and seep and sieve of the southwestern-facing hillside below our house and across the creek that flows into the Smith River and eventually to the Atlantic via the Roanoke River.

But in the 4x8-foot raised-bed boxes, a few things are growing.  Some tomatoes are on the vine -- a long way from ripening.  We've had a few zukes and yellow squash.  And we've had a bunch of cucumbers.  So with time on our hands and little opportunity to get out and weed the garden or paint the new garden shed or stretch the wire on the new field fence, we made pickles the other morning.

This has been a bread-and-butter pickle-eating family since high school days half a century ago, when we'd drop by the Strickland home just a couple blocks from Page High at lunch and munch our way through Fran Strickland's crisp bread-and-butter pickles and her stock of Charles Chips. Made a fine lunch.

Fran made her pickles the old-fashioned way -- cooking the pickles in a process that seemed to require the same level of logistics as Operation Overlord and canning them in jars and carefully sealing the tops and putting them on the shelf to keep for years. They were just superb -- but a lot of hard work.

Then sometime in the 1970s or '80s while on a trip to Texas, Fran and Hal dropped in on a relative, and found the recipe we use today.  It's a lot easier and doesn't require the long time and complicated logistics the old recipe demanded. One reason is you just put the pickles in the refrigerator and as long as you keep 'em cold, they'll do just fine. We're told that they can last up to a year in the refrigerator.   We don't know if these pickles will last that long because we eat 'em up well before their expiration date. 

We do know that there are people in Idaho and France making pickles this way, because when they sampled the goods here last year, they got the recipe then and reported back on their own success making these pickles back home. 

Here's the basic recipe for the pickle juice:

4 cups sugar
4 cups white vinegar
Scant 1/2  cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed

Slice at least a dozen cukes into chips about 1/8 inch thick and slice four onions the same way.  It'll help to break or cut the onion slices up.  Have a dozen quart-sized Mason jars ready. (You can use smaller jars, but of course you'll need more of them.)  Pack the raw cuke slices and onion slices into the jars, alternating two or three handfuls of cukes with one handful of onion slices. Pack 'em tight. They'll float in the juice if you don't. 

Now mix the sugar, vinegar, salt, turmeric, mustard seed and celery seed and heat the ingredients in a large saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. When the juice is hot and the sugar dissolved, pour an equal amount over the cukes and onions in each of the jars.  We ran short of the brine with the first batch, so quickly made up a second batch so we could completely cover all of the pickle/onion concoction in each jar. Then we put on the tops and put them in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before sampling the first bites.  They'll be good, and they'll get even better as they steep in the juice over time.  Enjoy.

But you'll have to find your own Charles Chips.  Haven't seen them since Lyndon Johnson was president, but Google can tell you where you can get them online.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Flags on the Fourth

Legend has it that ship's Captain William Driver, a Massachusetts native born in 1803, nicknamed the American flag "Old Glory" back when the flag had 24 stars on it.  When he retired from his seagoing days he moved to Tennessee and frequently hauled out the huge flag on patriotic holidays. It measured something like 10 by 17 feet -- large enough to fly from the mast of his whaling ship.  It later had 10 more stars added to it, for a total of 34, I have read.

Our version of Old Glory dates to the second decade of the 20th century. Arizona became the 48th state in 1912, and some time after that my maternal grandfather, Charles S. Minor of Anderson, S.C., acquired a 4 by 7-foot U.S. flag with 48 stars on it and, according to one family story, draped it over the casket containing the remains of his youngest son when they were returned from France after the First World War. His son, St. Clair, had been a machine gunner with the S.C. National Guard, and had died going over the top on the Hindenburg Line in the closing weeks of that war.  I found the flag, with C.S. Minor's initials marked on the border next to the blue field (the canton) that contains the white stars, not too long ago in a box that had been in my parents attic for many years.

It's been too messy lately to fly this nearly century-old flag in front of our house, so today I've got it hanging from the rail of a second-floor gallery, remembering people I never met.  C.S. Minor died years before my parents were married in 1937; I have a few things of St. Clair's as well as my grandmother's Gold Star Flag that she hung on the front door of her home in Anderson. It contains two stars for her sons serving in the war -- one blue, for cavalryman Charlie Minor, who survived, and one gold for St. Clair, the machine gunner who didn't.

I've also thought of my great-grandfather A.D. Betts this week. A hundred and fifty years ago he was serving with the 30th North Carolina Regiment at Gettysburg, and he wrote of his experiences in his wartime diary. Old A.D. was a Methodist minister, crippled in his youth after being thrown from a steer he tried to ride, but able enough to serve as chaplain of the 30th.  In times of battle, chaplains performed a number of duties, including helping the wounded.  He wrote on July 1, 1863, of his regiment moving 12 miles to Gettysburg, where his unit helped "drive the enemy two miles.  He tended to the wounded, including holding the regimental commander, Col. Francis Marion Parker, in his arms.   "Col. Parker's wound was in the face. The ball entered  just below one eye and came out below the other, cutting the nasal tubes. When I knelt by him and prayed for  him and his wife and children, he seemed about to strangle with the blood. "  Somehow Parker survived that injury and the war, and came home.

A.D. wrote that July 2 was "a fearful fight"and that July 3 was an exhausting day, moving the field hospital early. He took a bad fall from his horse. "Loss of sleep and excitement may have led to the vertigo,” he wrote. “God could take a man out of this world without his knowing anything of it.”  On the Fourth of July the corps hospital moved to a barn at a place called Fairfield,  and by the 6th of July the defeated army was moving slowly away south, dealing with wind and rain.

I never knew old A.D. but my father knew him well.  He lived with my father's family in Greensboro, and died at age 86 in 1918, when my father was 6 years old.  My father -- born this day in 1906 -- once told me the angriest he had ever seen his own father was not long before A.D. Betts died.  He had saddled up Dobbin, gentlest of my grandfather's hunting horses, and ridden off north on Elm Street in Greensboro.  My grandfather was afraid he would hurt himself, and rushed after A.D., furious at his taking such a risk.  But A.D. was doing what he had done for decades as a circuit rider and a chaplain -- saddling up when it was time to preach at some little country church or tend to some wounded or dying soul. It has been said that it was as if he could still hear a bugle blowing somewhere, and was headed out to answer the call.

So today our flag flies inside in remembrance of men who went off to war and the families who stayed behind to carry on as they could -- and those who still go when duty calls.   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Severe drought in the Blue Ridge

We're having quite a drought here in the Upper Smith River Drainage District.  Not, not a rainwater drought.  We're having a sunshine drought.   There's plenty of rain -- our leaky pond is as full as we've seen it in 11 years.  We haven't had to water the rhodos or the impatiens or the knockout roses or the hostas or the yews or the tomatoes or the cukes --- ok, the cukes don't look good, but that's not because of a lack of water.  Maybe they're getting drowned.  But a little more sun might help them.  We didn't make enough bread-and-butter pickles last summer and I hope not to make the same mistake two years in a row.  C'mon, cukes!

The good side is we're seeing more varieties of fascinating little wildflowers pop up everywhere. We've seen the biggest patch ever of fire pinks, a john-in-the-pulpit, a turk's head (I think), and some amazing purplish spirea.  The flame azaleas have been unbelievably bright. And some thin rows of wild daisies have popped up around the new garden shed.

But we haven't seen much sun this summer -- more overcast skies than direct sunlight, it seems, though the days are nice and cool.  I shouldn't complain. We just spent a week down at Figure 8 Island and when the sun was out there it was hot as fire and as humid as Washington in August.  As someone who has had a bunch of precancerous lesions removed from aging fair skin, I'm not complaining. It's 64 degrees this morning on our ridge and the breeze is blowing and if I can remember correctly, that's why we moved here and not to, say, Eastern N.C. or South Georgia below the gnat line.

Weather's fine. Come on in.  You won't need your sunglasses. But bring a jacket.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Kids today

Hard to believe, but there it is: 42 years ago Monday, this biker fellow, shown at about 4 on my old BSA 250 in Arlington, was born at Ft. Belvoir VA.  He's still racing -- bicycles as well as cars in the "24 Hours of Lemons" races held here and there.

And then 35 years ago today at Wake Medical Center, this tractor girl, shown at about 11, was born. She's still moving about the countryside, more in cars than on 14-horse tractors.

 Both are flying in this weekend for an annual family reunion.

Happy Birthday, John and Mary!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sending ships to sea

  Just the other day we were beating to windward on the Rappahannock River in East Virginia, clawing our way up from Deltaville to Carter's Creek, when someone asked whatever happened to that Grady White fishing boat we once owned.  We didn't know. We had sold her in 2007 to a college professor in Wilmington who liked to fish offshore.

  By strange coincidence came a note in the morning e-mail today from Steve Everhart, who had bought the boat.  The Facebook message said the vessel -- renamed Wooglin for a famous and ferocious dragon -- was on its way to Australia. Here's a photo as she was dragged off by the broker. Steve messaged that the buyer was paying more in freight to get it to Australia than he had paid for the boat itself.

It was a good 'un. We had repowered her with a 220 hp four-stroke Suzuki, put in new fuel tanks, rewired the thing and put in new canvas screens.  Great boat.

I feel a little like a shipping magnate, having bought a bunch of old boats, fixed them up and sold them to go around the world.  Or maybe just this hemisphere.  Our 37-foot sailboat, a heavy Hunter that was designed by the Cherubini boat yard, noted for producing elegant craft with beautiful interiors back when Hunter was interested in that kind of vessel, went to somewhere in Central America after we sold her. Here's a photo of Grace.

The fellow who bought her kindly sent back the mahogany stern plate that I had handcarved one winter.  That nameplate now graces our entrance hall here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club.

Although we have continued to crew on sailing and motor vessels since selling all our boats and moving to the Blue Ridge, we haven't had a chance to charter our own until the other day when we joined friends Barnie and Debbie Day to charter a 39 foot Jenneau sloop from Norton Yachts down in Deltaville.  Here's a picture of our crew, Rappahannock bridge in the background:

We sailed a few days, mostly on the Rappahannock, accompanied by John and Lise Dietz of Richmond, who own and operate Elysium, a 32-foot Cape Dory.   Here's a photo of that fine craft underway in gusty winds:

It had been 11 years since we took a sailing vessel out of a slip and put her under sail.  The Jenneau was a good-handling sailboat, but I was rusty as nails on a couple important things -- such as how to roll in an in-mast furling mechanism when the wind pipes up to about 18 knots and you're running out of water and into shoal territory.  With a little coaching on the VHF by John Dietz -- and some further clarification from my First Mate, who as usual was right -- the thing slid in nicely.  Here's a photo from somewhere, maybe Carter's Creek.

It was a great trip, though we were a little nervous about that big storm out west that threatened mayhem all across parts of Virginia.  So we yanked up the anchor at 5:30 a.m. Thursday -- just enough light to see the crab pot buoys we needed to avoid -- and motored hard for Deltaville.  Got back to the Blue Ridge just in time to get the car hosed off by a vicious rainstorm after nearly a six-hour drive from the marina.  But we broke nothing, lost nothing, never ran aground, no one got hurt, and the lone casualties were one ball cap and a handsome amount of good libations.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Windows 3.1 in the garden shed

And lo, the winds came and the sun shone and the swamp began to dry up, and as these things came to pass, so did the long-awaited garden shed begin to rise from the mud.  I'm trying to build it with leftover materials around the place, though some 2x4s and other things had to be purchased from the local Southern States folks.  The siding is a faux log profile, milled for our 2007 log home's second-story dormers, left over from construction that year.  The log house burned but not the extra dormer siding, and there was enough to cover the 12x8-foot shed with a 4-foot porch.

The windows came out of a century-old farmhouse a couple hundred feet to the north. The old house is in the process of returning to the earth, but in it I found two half windows, reglazed the panes and painted them with a coat of primer.

 I have also rebuilt two five-panel doors from the house.  Thought they were identical when I pulled them out, but later realized they were different sizes.  Still, with a little trimming and a lot of green paint, they look more or less the same from 50 feet, if you squint real hard and close one eye.

Then there's the roof.  I had planned to use some leftover asphalt shingles on the roof, then thought about using some recycled sheet metal that might come off our house to repair some hail damage from last year. A friend offered a pile of sheet metal from his own roof-replacement project, so there are options galore, just no time to put any of them to work.  After all, this project started with the need for a better field fence, and so far all I've gotten done on that job is auguring the holes and planting the posts in more mud slurry than firm dirt.

But at least the windows are in.  Next big decision: how to mount the doors.  Stay turned.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Life's a ditch

My father used to joke about how sometimes things go from the ridiculous to the sublime. I think I know what he meant -- such as that day a year ago when I was putting together some raised bed garden boxes in a snow flurry in a biting March wind. It was so absurd I had to laugh -- and it's doggone hard to laugh when your fingers can't even hold the long screw I was trying to bore through frozen wood.

This year it's the standing water in the garden, which just keeps on coming out of every once-dry seep, intermittent spring and bog spot on the hillside above us.  Trying to build the new garden shed in ankle-deep mud has been a pain in the neck and a nuisance in the feet.  The new fence posts stand in water, and it looks like it could be weeks before I can tamp down earth around them and start stringing up the new field fence.

So the last couple of days I've been digging little ditches, trying to lure the water away from the garden and into the tall grass that seems to jump up a couple of inches every day -- and laughing about the utter absurdity of trying to dry out a garden whose main problem too often is not enough rain.

These ditches are shallow little muddy drains, but they working. At least they've got moving water in them, all leading away from the garden.  But so far there's no sign of any drying out in the areas where we hope to plant a few rows. There seems to be plenty of water yet to seep out of the hillside -- and the weather forecast is for more rain.  My weather gauge says we had another two inches since Saturday, and there's little sign of a dry spell ahead.  Well, as least we won't be whining about a drought for awhile.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Swamp on the mountain

A little over a week ago I was drilling holes with a tractor-mounted augur to put up a new field fence around the garden.  Beat the dickens out of trying to dig a hole with a shovel or a post-hole digger -- known around these parts as a man-killer.  Took me two weeks once to dig eight post holes for my barn.  Took about two tractor hours to augur up 22 holes worth of dirt and Patrick County rock and some gray gooey looking stuff.

I stopped the tractor when that gray clay came up and looked into the pit. What I saw was water moving across the bottom of the hole, gurgling its merry way toward the creek about 15 farther down the hill.  Had to dump a bunch of rock into the hole before that treated post sat in a firm foundation.

Then a few days later the clouds moved back in and it rained more than seven inches, according to both a cheap and a pricey gizmo that measures rainfall up on the ridge, about 400 feet west.. Then it cleared up and wind blew and the sun shone -- all the things that usually mean overly dry conditions.

Except in the garden.  We got water everywhere, and seemingly more of it every day. It started first with standing water in the postholes.  Then there appeared a quarter-inch of standing water in the mulch between the lower six raised beds that we built last year in the southwest corner of the garden.  Now it's standing around and below the new garden shed -- the not-quite-half-finished new garden shed, that is. I stepped in one spot and went past the ankles before I remembered how to levitate out of a jam.  It is, to use technical terms, mooshy where it ain't gooshy.  And in the row crop part of the garden, the stain of surface water has advanced uphill about 20 feet. Water's rising, looks like.

I don't know, but I think I'm going to put some mooring cleats on the deck of the garden shed and open a marina where pleasure craft can tie up.  Maybe get me some striped T-shirts and build a gondola so I can get down to the broccoli patch and back without risking miring up to the garboard strakes.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Might come a shire

One summer long ago I worked for a waterwell driller down in Guilford County with a some colorful characters from whom I learned a lot.  All of them could use forked sticks to find wells. One of them specialized in using bend welding rods.  And one of them fancied himself a weather forecaster, able to forsee the thunderstorms that made working on wet pipes and drilling rigs a challenge during the hot steamy months of July and August. Every so often he'd look over his right shoulder, point backwards with a stubby thumb and observe, "Might come a shire back over yonder this evening." That last word came out this way: "thisseevnin."  I'm not making fun of the man atall. That's the way a lot of people talked where I grew up, including many of my own family, especially when it was fixing to rain, or at least shower.  And if it was fixing to shire, you'd want to know about it, too, so you could be down off that rig or up out of the pumphouse when the thunderstorm broke and the lightning began to fly.

About 10 days ago we started getting our own version of Guilford County shires when the fog began closing in and the easterlies, which brought a lot of moisture up against the Blue Ridge, began blowing that fog at a steady 10 miles per hour.  When that happens, you don't need it to rain, because everything gets wet anyway -- cars, houses, dogs, gardens, half-built garden sheds, blueberry patches in need of mulch, muddy asparagus patches that need cutting and particularly 67-year-old men with bad knees and grumpy dispositions.  I've been rode hard and put up wet ever since, with hardly a chance to dry out.

Sure, the sun has peeked through a time or two, but usually only long enough to entice you into thinking the weather improve.  It will, it will, just not any damn time soon.  That whatever-storm-it- was that brought snow to the Midwest is now lashing our part of upper Patrick County. The temperature never got out of the 30s yesterday and the wind chill gizmo pegged the chill factor at 29.  It blew porch chairs all over creation, made a small lake in our little front yard and thoroughly soaked everything in site. Even the trees have started to warp.

Word is that this storm might blow itself out by, oh, Wednesday or Thursday.  Well, we have learned up here to also ask, Wednesday or Thursday of what week?  Next? Or the one after? I asked a veteran weatherman the other day when we might finally have some normal temperatures and dry air.  "Once the cutoff low wobbles out to sea next week, I think we may get a few days of warmer/drier," he replied.   Well, that was last week. Now it's not so clear, because if it does warm up, there's another cold front right behind it. 

Remember that warm day we had back in April? I think that was our summer.  It feels like it's already fall, and soon the leaves will drop and the ice and snow and sneet will return.  I'd hurry up and get my firewood up -- if only this shire would let up.