Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wheeze, honk and hack

The lump in the back of my throat Sunday night wasn't for my inept Tar Heels, who had gotten blown away by Rutgers a couple days earlier, or the Washington Redskins, which had gotten blown away by Dallas in a forgettable end to a forgettable season that represented an absolutely miserable experience for fans of these old teams this fall.  Well, OK, beating Duke was nice, but East Carolina and N.C. State plumb wore us out and dumped us in the waste bin. Oh, me.

Nope, it was not a lump of sorrow. It was a lump of aggravated, annoyed, irritated, raw as hot gravelly gullet, and I knew what it meant. It was time for my biennial bout with the evils of the season -- what few medical specialists call the coldus hideosis horribilis, Latin for "You ain't gonna be fit to live with for some time, Bubba."  That's a very rough translation, but it is what it is fixing to be: just godawful.

Back in my smoking days I used to get head colds with hacking coughs, explosive sneezes and an ample flow of nasty nasal emissions a couple times a year.  When I finally quit after a couple of decades of abusing cigarettes, pipe tobacco, starlight mints and chewing gum, the rate of what we called Chapel Hill Chest Rattlers diminished considerably.  Sometimes I'd go three years without one, but more usually every other year.

This one is a beast. Probably qualifies as a Belcher Mountain Wheezer.  I'm surrounded by patent medicines, boxes of Kleenex (expect the stock to shoot up rapidly next week; I'm buying it by the freight car load), packs of exotic teas, vials of supplements in caplets and capsules and a little blue bottle with an eyedropper for dispensing some sort of potion said to ease pain, restore health and make childbirth a pleasure, a pitcher of Patrick County well water and, somewhere around here, a dwindling bottle of Knob Creek. It rained yesterday, then froze, then snowed and the thermometer is hanging around 29 while the wedge fog has us boxed in.  Like the Bob Dylan song, You ain't goin' nowhere.

I have a stack of books -- a Bernard Cornwell, a Pat Conroy, a Michael Connely and a Burke Davis  -- to keep me company, a stack of split oak on the deck that feeds the old wood stove and keeps it ticking, and a stack of blues CDs that I haven't listened to in years. They ought to be good for the soul in this winter of physical misery.

Don't think for a moment this is all bad.  I've cleaned out five years of deleted e-mails, restored a Christmas card list lost in in a 2011 retirement move and decluttered a hard drive that had way too many widgets and tuits and thingamajigs that have been slowing the contraption down for a couple years.  Found a couple of short story starts that still might lead somewhere, an outline for a book about growing up in the South and a first-whack at a song about the Blue Ridge.  There's work to do here, son, and the sooner you get better, the sooner you can get going again!  Now where's that Knob Creek....

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chestnuts on a Virginia hillside

The Dan River starts as a seep near the edge of a cornfield just up the road and over the ridge from us. It makes its way a few thousand feet west before it becomes a pond or two, then a rushing creek, then a river that winds its way over to the Blue Ridge Escarpment and plunges down into the Kibler Valley near the Virginia-North Carolina state line.  It meanders for a good many miles, hooking up with the Mayo River near Mayodan and then in Eden with the Smith River, which has its headwaters in a lovely fold of the earth a few hundred feet from the rockers on our front porch.

Watching over this noble set of waters, well before it joins the powerful Roanoke River and eventually waters the Atlantic Ocean, is a group of dedicated folks who do the Lord's work in picking up trash and taking care of the aquatic life and helping folks understand how to do a better job of keeping the countryside healthy.  It's the Dan River Basin Association, and its members and small staff do a great many more things than keeping up with the needs of one lovely river.

So it was that the DRBA put out a call the other week for volunteers to work with the American Chestnut Foundation and with naturalists and other outdoors-minded people to help replant chestnut seedlings on a hillside in one of Southwest Virginia's lovely woods.  As a matter of policy, they don't bandy about where these fields are, in hope of avoiding a lot of pedestrian traffic from the curious about what the chestnut plants look like. A dozen or so of us answered the call one bright day not long ago and went about putting in year-old seedlings to replace an earlier planting that was not successful. Here's a photo of the volunteers after setting out about a hundred seedlings in a field that had been cut over in the past few years.

The first planting may have failed because the seedlings were not protected well enough from animals looking for a quick snack. So the job here was to dig new holes of sufficient depth to spread and plant the seedlings, then place a plastic tube around the stalk of the seedling and support it with a short post, and then to surround the seedling with a five-food high cage staked firmly to the ground.  
 After a slow start as volunteers learned how to put these things securely in the ground, the pace picked up. It wasn't a race, exactly, but crews of two and three volunteers worked together to break ground, chop up the clay soil, spread the roots and firmly place the soil around the roots, pack it just a bit, guide in the tube, pound in the stake and then figure out how to secure the cages to posts, either with zip strips or, as several of us learned, how to weave the flexible pipe posts through the cage wire before hammering them into the ground.
If all goes as hoped, these plants will get enough rain and sun to take root and grow into candidates for the return of the once-mighty chestnut forests that covered many parts of Virginia and other states before the blight  devastated the chestnut. It was  a huge blow to the Appalachian economy, because chestnuts provided mast for animals, good material for fences, better lumber for furniture and stout cabins, and cash income for farmers who shipped chestnuts to large cities in the northeast.

Just last summer I pulled a few boards off a crumbling farm shed down the hill a ways, planed the slabs, glued up a coffee-table top that would look good on our side porch, and thought once again about how the chestnut blight had robbed generations of the chance to work with a lovely and sturdy wood that almost seems to like to be shaped into something useful.  Maybe one day some of these seedlings we planted will somehow help instill that sense of delight in others who live in these old hills.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nocturnal visitors in the yard

Took the last of the apples and threw 'em out in the little patch of woods on the east side of the house, and tied the game camera to a maple.  Here's what we caught:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ode to some old boots

These old boots have a lot of miles on 'em.  Bought 'em years ago in Asheville, when our daughter, now 36, was in her first or second year in college up yonder.  Best boots I've ever had.  Comfortable, lightweight, mostly waterproof, and I could walk in 'em all day without getting the wobblies or the barking dogs. 

Hiked in Idaho and Maine in 'em, built an outhouse, a workshop and a garage in them, plowed the gardens, tramped through the ashes of our burnt-down log home in them, hauled timberframe parts for the replacement house, picked  asparagus and the blueberries, mowed the dam and the hayfields, hauled cars stuck in the snow and put nearly 200,000 miles on my pickup truck with 'em on. Great boots.

Trouble is, I've worn them out two or three times. Soles are all but slick. Went through  innumerable sets of laces and at least two tubes of Shoo Goo, but now they come apart in a matter of weeks, the sole flapping like some talk radio host that loves to hear his own voice rattle on, the damps seeping in along the stitches and the toeboxes rising up like elf shoes.

They're going into retirement, because earlier this fall I finally found some replacements -- reasonably lightweight clodhoppers with good ankle support and soft grippers that let me climb on the metal roof without slipping. Liked 'em so well I thought about buying an extra pair, and using the old Army boot trick to tell 'em apart.

I don't expect anyone does this anymore, but when I went off to Ft. Bragg for basic combat training in April of '69, the quartermaster issued us two pairs of black boots -- the old black shoe Army gear.  And the drill sergeants of Company B, 10th Battalion, 2nd Basic Combat Training Brigade ("Bravo, Bravo, B-10-2, First you see Rest, Now you see the Best!", we used to chant whenever drill sergeants ordered it up)  required us to wear one set of boots on odd-numbered days and the second set of boots on even-number days.  They could tell which pair of boots we were wearing by the white dot of paint we had to put on the back of one pair of the boots. You'd wear a white-dot pair one day, the no-dot pair the next. That way, the boots would get broken in equally.

Well, the recruits of Company B didn't want the toes of both sets of boots to get torn up by the constant scraping and grinding and hopeless struggle of being made to low-crawl the machine gun course, the company street, the parade ground and anywhere else those soul-less drill sergeants could think of to make us miserable.  If you've never been made to low crawl, it's exhausting and filthy and hateful. You can't rise up even an inch. You're suppose to drag yourself over whatever terrain is in front of you the same way a snake would -- stretching and reaching and pushing forward but staying in full contact with the ground. There was a point to all this -- not just breaking down the troops in order to rebuild them, but also teaching soldiers how to crawl as flat as possible in order to avoid being shot by an enemy looking for anything moving that they could shoot.

So to avoid ruining both sets of boots, we'd rise in the night during lights out and change the white dots from one set of boots to the other.  This allowed us to continue wearing one set of boots while keeping the other set in perfect unworn condition. 

We thought we were so clever.  And it wasn't until a few days before graduation after eight weeks in basic hell, when you could actually have a human conversation with the drill sergeant, that we learned the truth. It might have been Drill Sergeant Glenn Warner, a tough little bantam of a soldier, who clued us in with something like: "Y'all probably think you invented the white dot trick and were fooling your sergeants. You didn't. We knew what you were doing and we allowed it because you all were starting to work together.  That's what basic training is all about. And now you got a decent pair of boots for your graduation parade.  Outstanding. Now drop and give me 50 pushups."

So I thought about Drill Sergeant Warner and his colleagues back at Ft. Bragg a lifetime ago, and I bought that second pair of new boots. About to put 'em on for the first time.  And I won't have to resort to the white dot gimmick to tell 'em apart, either.  They now come in both brown and black, and today is going to be black boot day. Outstanding!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Winter arrived way too early

So far we've had three nights in the 'teens in November, and today the forecast is for a warmup of sorts -- all the way up to 31 F.   Well, take 'em where you can get 'em. We've had lows at 17, 13 and 14 at night recently, and all day yesterday the digital thermometers struggled to get to 24, so 31 looks positively balmy. Take a peek at Mabry Mill over on the Parkway, from this morning:

We had a little bit of warning this was coming. Our young'uns out West told us of foot-deep snows and frigid temps sweeping south and east, so last week we dashed to the garden and pulled the last of the broccoli, chard and kale.  We polished off the broccoli Sunday and took care of the kale last night, so we've pretty much consumed the winter garden's bounty.

The garden was a great success this year, and not just for the little critters and birds who got the eggplant, the okra and the corn. By the time we figured out how to tighten up the bottom of the new fence, we had so many peppers, tomatoes, potatoes that we were having to think up places to put them.  The squash was fantastic -- yellow and green and good.  The asparagus patch as usual put out hundreds of pounds, and the blueberries were enormous.

After we pulled up the last of the fall garden, we hauled mulch and compost to the asparagus patch to help it through the winter and jump-start the spring.  In about eight weeks we'll go into the blueberry patch and start pruning the insides of the bushes, and also the outsides.  They've badly overgrown, making it hard to pass up the row to pick the high stuff, and we're trying to bring some order to the patch. We also plan to transplant some more rabbit-eye blueberries from down near the creek to the patch on the western slope, where we hope there will be more blue and less green than we've been getting on the eastern slope.

And sometime in late winter or early spring we'll put in another half dozen apple trees somewhere -- perhaps on the same western-facing slope where the blueberries thrive.  We'll be watching the mail for the first of the garden catalogs and plotting where we'll plant what -- something to look forward to in what evidently is going to be a long, cold one.  We're burning our way through the first cord of firewood at a pretty rapid clip, so unless there are some long thaws, I'll be in the woods scouting up the deadfalls and standing locusts to help get us through.  Winter in the Blue Ridge has arrived here at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering Uncle St. Clair, lost in the War to End All Wars

This flag hung on the front door at 805 S. McDuffie Street in Anderson, South Carolina, for several years a century ago.

It's a Gold Star Mothers Flag.

The Gold Star was for Anderson Machine Gun Company Private Victor St. Clair Minor.

He was a Blue Star until early on the morning of Oct. 17, 1918, when he went over the top and disappeared in a bombshell explosion somewhere near the border between Belgium and France.

My grandmother, Olive Patterson Cochrane Minor, sewed the Gold Star over the Blue Star when word came down from the Army that St. Clair had died in action.

She had sewn on the two Blue Stars when both her sons went in and over there.

The top one was for St. Clair, the bottom one was for Charles S. Minor Jr., her older boy.

Charlie was in the cavalry, and came home from the War to End All Wars.

Years later, St. Clair's few remains came home, too, and he was reburied in Anderson.

So on this Veterans Day 2014, I remember Uncle Charlie, who lived into the 1960s, and I think about Uncle St. Clair, who died 28 years before I was born, and I send them my thanks, my respects, my admiration and my salute.

Spec. E-5 John M. Betts Jr.
RA 12816683
U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1969-72

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A fiddler's show of courage after a bad fall

Saturday night's concert of the fabulous bluegrass group the Steep Canyon Rangers was terrific -- great musicians playing beautiful music against a stunning backdrop of Autumn finery at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It was the final in a series of 20 weekly concerts sponsored by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation in alliance with a number of local and regional sponsors that have made the music scene along the Plateau District a don't-miss stop along Virginia's Crooked Road.  Here's a scene from up on the hill above the outdoor amphitheater:

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has had a nearly year-long association with the Steep Canyon Rangers (which has toured with banjoist and comedian Steve Martin and singer Edie Brickell in recent years) in support of Parkway-related matters, most particularly the foundation's grant for new facilities at the Parkway's Graveyard Fields site in North Carolina.  The Steep Canyon Rangers' 2013 album Tell The Ones I Love featured a lively instrumental named "Graveyard Fields," and the group worked with filmmaker Paul Bonesteel, a member of the foundation's Advisory Panel, to produce a video to help raise money for the Graveyard Fields Project. That project included a new parking area and a restroom, both a huge benefit to fans of the area who have had inadequate parking and no facilities.

Rangers move on to their final song of the evening. From left, bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, guitarist Woody Platt, banjo player Graham Sharp, mandolin player Mike Guggino and percussionist Jeff Sipe, sitting in with the Rangers lately.

Last night's concert was in its closing number with fiddler Nicky Sanders clearly a crowd favorite.  He strutted and pranced and danced about the stage as he was virtually burning up his fiddle with hot licks you wouln't believe on a great song called Auden's Train (I think), when disaster struck. He missed his step in the evening damps and pitched over the edge of the stage and onto an asphalt-surfaced apron between the stage and the audience. Fiddle attachments went flying as Sanders sprawled on the ground awkwardly, and banjo player Graham Sharp jumped down to see if he could help.  In a show of guts and gumption and courage and, no doubt, a rush of adrenalin, Sanders bobbed back up, began reassembling the fittings on his fiddle, started tuning up, checked a nasty-looking wound to his left knee, then rejoined the band -- still playing its final song -- and got back on the stage for another few minutes of dancing and fiddling and making amazing music while the crowd came to its feet and applauded.   Here are a few pictures taken a few moments apart -- and then the Rangers' final bow, as band members linked arms while the crowd cheered and clapped.
Nicky Sanders, left in front of the stage, puts his fiddle back together as Graham Sharp watches, and plays, from nearby.

Sanders back on stage, band still playing, and starting his moves,.

That knee has to hurt, but the show goes on.

Nicky Sanders takes another look.

And the Rangers take their bow.  What a night. And a helluva show!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Parkway's Midday Musicians take a bow

   An interesting thing happens every day during the warm months at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At noon, from May through October, a group of musicians, many of them professional players of considerable note, assemble in the breezeway between the museum and its intimate auditorium next door, and begins to play a variety of music reflecting the culture, history and lore of the mountains.  It's free.  People come from all over to listen. And it's the toe-tappingest place you'll find anywhere in the hills for the next four hours.

And on Fridays, something else happens. On Friday's it's an open jam, welcoming anyone who walks up to bring an instrument, or borrow a spare, or just join in or even lead the singing in a song.  I've sat in this Jim Marshall and Friends Jam for five months now (bass fiddle), and we've had visitors from around the globe.  (Mr. Marshall started the jam years ago and now resides in a nursing home; Mark Raynes and Renee Igo lead the Jim Marshall Jam in his absence.)  A few weeks ago visitors included a fellow from Spain who lives in London and who came forward to sing some compositions of his own.  A month ago, a woman who sings in a choir back home somewhere in the Midwest did a gorgeous version of Amazing Grace.  Two weeks ago, a couple from Argentina came up and sang seven or eight Argentinian folk songs in Spanish -- just superb music, though I recognized maybe one word in 20 or so. They stole the show, as Mark Raynes put it.

But that's the beauty of the free Midday Mountain Music program that runs every day for six months of the year: you never know what you are going to hear or who you are going to hear it from, but it's always interesting.  Some folks expect mostly bluegrass, yet what they hear is a mix of American roots music with a lot of influences from around the world.  Bluegrass, yes, but also traditional mountain music, folk music, blues, gospel, country, olde timey music, new timey music, funny songs, sad songs, train songs, cabin-in-the-hills songs, moonshine songs, lonesome-for-the-Blue Ridge songs -- even a 19th century Josef Wagner march, "Under the Double Eagle," popularized by John Phillip Sousa's band before Benny Goodman and later all kinds of bluegrass players jumped all over it. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some R&B and beach music once in a while.

And here's the most amazing thing: This daily offering of music is played and sung by volunteers who put in more than 100 hours of performance time each every year.  Add in travel time -- some come from two hours or more each way every week to perform -- and jam groups that can grow to more than 20 musicians at a sitting, and you've got thousands of hours donated to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the enjoyment of its visitors.  Four hours of music, by the way, is a pretty long gig.  These folks play because they want to. It is a service to the public, and judging by how many people come every day to sit and watch, they appreciate it.

So it was entirely appropriate and gratifying that the National Park Service recognized the volunteer Midday Musicians at a luncheon the other day at the Folk Art Center near the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters in Asheville, North Carolina. The annual gathering honors volunteers all along the Parkway who do a terrific job as interpreters and maintenance volunteers.  My friends Mark Raynes and Renee Igo accepted the Parkway Partner Volunteers of the Year Award on behalf of all the musicians who play at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

From left, Richard Emmett, Renee Igo, Mark Raynes, Mark Woods. Photo from Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation website.
With them were Richard Emmett, music program director at the center, and Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods.  The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the private fund-raising partner of the Parkway, agreed to operate programs at the center after the Parkway requested its help several years ago. The Foundation named Emmett to operate those programs, which include the Midday Mountain Music as well as the weekend concert series, which concludes today with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

At the awards ceremony Tuesday, Superintendent Mark Woods had this to say:  "Through your service, visitors to the Blue Ridge Music Center have the wonderful treat of hearing authentic, live music seven days a week, every day the Music Center is open. This service over eight visitors seasons [since the opening of the Music Center] likely represents a contribution of over 30,000 volunteer hours. How wonderful to consider how many tunes have floated from instruments during that time."  Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Riding the ridges for the Floyd library

Chuck Flynt and his wife Diane have done a lot of good in the places where they have lived and worked in North Carolina and Virginia over the years, and they've figured out interesting ways to make it fun, too.  Chuck turned 74 this year, and as he has in recent years, he invited his friends to ride along with him on a birthday run up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Chuck Flynt leads the 2014 Tour de Chuck out of the parking lot and on toward the Parkway

Chuck's offer was simple: For every mile you ride, we'll donate a dollar to the Jesse Peterman Memorial Library in Floyd. This year there were 22 riders.  They seemed to enjoy it. Got a lot of exercise on a beautiful day. And wound up doing a good deed for readers and fans of the library in these hills.
Getting ready to go

And here's the amazing thing: Chuck rides a mile for every one of his birthdays. A number of his friends join him in that, but others are more suited to shorter rides.  Diane aims for 40, she says -- a good age and a good number.  
Diane pedals out front with the Lap Dogs

The Flynts have ridden in a lot of places, and often invite new friends to the Blue Ridge to visit -- and to ride.  "We were especially happy that Larry Stark joined us from Denver and Jenny Turek from Marin County," Diane said in an e-mail Monday. "We met these two on our Spain Backroads trip and they made the trek to VA just for the birthday ride. We met two other bike riding couples from PA who will come next year, when we will avoid the Jewish holiday and leaf season both, somehow."
Not a Le Mans start, exactly, but getting going just the same

Jim Newlin, pulling out smiling

I popped by a parking lot near Mabry Mill on the Parkway Sunday morning to shoot some photos and see the long riders -- the Big Dogs -- off in their northern run up beyond Rakes Mill and back, a total of 28 miles. Later I dropped in on the mid-morning start of the southern leg down to Groundhog Mountain and on to Fancy Gap with the Lap Dogs and (Diane said she couldn't help it) the Puppy Dogs, who could ride the 26 miles to Ground Hog and back or the 46 miles to Fancy Gap and back.  
Diane, Susan Icove (center) and Mary Ann Koch, about set to go

In all the riders chalked up 1,195 miles, the most posted in the three years that Chuck has used his birthday ride to raise money for the library.  In 2012, the Flynts donated $1,005 for the mileage ridden. Last year, the total was $707. It's beginning to build up nicely. "That adds up to $2970 wonderful,  much-needed and appreciated dollars for the library," Cathy Whitten, library branch manager for the Jessie Peterman Library, emailed me this morning. "We are so grateful to all of you who ride and donate.  It’s just the most delightful thing to us that you all would do this!
Most of the riders in this year's Tour de Chuck, at Groundhog Mountain Sunday. Don't know who took this picture, but it's a good one. That's Chuck and Diane in the lower right, front row.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

How 'bout these apples?

It's been a pretty good garden year up here in the hills, particularly for the aging apple trees put in the ground many decades ago by the Woods and the Conners and other farming folk who lived on this property. Most years the crop, if that's the right word, is puny.   This year, by comparison, has been bountiful. 

We picked some yesterday from our best two trees, high above (well, ok, up the hill from) the pond. The first batch tasted to me like golden delicious and our friend Sandy Dupont thought they were closer to a Granny Smith, so for now we're calling them a golden granny. They had a lot of spots and zits and dings and blemished on them, but they were good. Martha B. made apple crunch and served them under a big scoop of gelato.  Mighty fine.  Here's a look into the five-gallon bucket:

The second batch wasn't as good, but also was more golden than red.  All these apples seem to be blushing somehow.  Dunno what this one is. A grouchy granny, maybe.

Then there was the third tree, way down the hill that had just a few more greens in it, in the egg basket on the left.

And finally there was the tree across the creek that had some red apples, on the right, above. Some of them were misshapen, but so am I, so what the heck. 

Oh, three other apples arrived -- with a new tree that I picked up from Slaughter's Nursery in the spring. Had three blooms on it.  In late August it delivered three apples, smallish but good.  That's the apply farm report for 2014.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gentleman George Hamilton IV, gone too soon

It would have been the summer of  '63, when my pal Fred Birdsong came by the house.  His father was an executive with Blue Bell, at the time one of the world's largest denim manufacturers, and the president of the company had asked a fellow from Winston-Salem to drop by the next evening and sing a few songs for a few friends and family.

I didn't know it at the time, but the company president's daughter was confined to a wheel chair, and this fellow from Winston-Salem had a big hit going.  It was a country song, and while I wasn't into country music yet, I had heard it a time or two on the radio and liked it. It would be a huge crossover hit.

I had never been in the home of Rodger LeMatty before, though I went by it several times a day going to and from Page High School. It was a big white house with columns at the corner of Cornwallis and Elmwood, a couple blocks from a girl I was sweet on.  I was working at a day camp that summer, and just had time to clean up a little before getting to the LeMatty's house at the right time.  Fred and I found seats on the floor, the thickest white rug I had ever seen.

I've had the same feeling a time or two, when the lights went down at the Majestic Theater in New York and the organ began rattling  the walls and tinkling the chandelier in the open moments of "Phantom of the Opera,"  and another time in Arizona when I heard the Kingston Trio's George Grove belting out the first chorus of a song I had written with Wood Allen a few months earlier.   Absolute chills, combined with what felt like partial levitation. Hard to describe it right, but what I heard that evening in the LeMatty home made me want to be in show business.

I don't remember the other songs that George Hamilton IV sang that night.  Probably his 1956 hit, "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" was one of them.  Maybe "To You And Yours (From Me and Mine)."  Could have been "If You Don't Know I Ain't Gonna Tell You."  But I will never forget hearing this short, simple song, a man singing about a place he missed:  Abilene.

It's an eternal theme in a lot of genres.  Performer hits it big, goes off to the crowded city, enjoys the high life, but things aren't always right, people aren't always nice, nothing like back home.  If there's anything wrong with that song, it's that it's just two short.   Just two verses, and before you know it, the song is over, and there you are wanting more.  But maybe the genius of the song is that it was short and to the point, and didn't need anything else.

They say the song was written about a town in Abilene, Kansas.  But every time I've heard it since then -- and every time I've sung it -- it has simply been about a place back home.   I don't know if Hamilton thought of the leafy street he grew up on in the Ardmore section of Winston-Salem when he sang it, but I'll bet it crossed his mind more than once, even as he took country music around the world and delighted audiences everywhere.

I only saw Hamilton that one time, and was sad to read about his death Wednesday in Nashville. From everything I've ever read about him, he was the genuine article -- a low-key, easy-going, charming gentleman, generous with his time, warm in his words and his smiles and his handshakes. I have read about a lot of stars in the music and entertainment world, and some of them are not the kind of person you want in your living room for long.  Some are.  George Hamilton IV always was one of them.

The words:

Abilene, Abilene
Prettiest town I've ever seen
Women there don't treat you mean
In Abilene, my Abilene

I sit alone most every night
Watch those trains pull out of sight
Don't I wish they were
Carrying me back to Abilene, My Abilene.

Crowded city ain't nothing free
Nothing in this town for me
Wish to the Lord that I could be
 in Abilene, Sweet Abilene.

Women there don't treat you mean
In Abilene, my Abilene

-- Bob Gibson, Lester Brown and John D. Loudermilk

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Still awaiting that call up to The Show

Oh, Doctor!, as Red Barber often marveled in his radio career.  Who'd have thunk that the Washington Nationals of the National League and the Baltimore Orioles of the American League would each clinch their division titles on the same night?  It happened last night, as the O's whipped the Blue Jays and the Nats bombed the Braves once again in a runaway second half of the season that has prompted speculation about a Birds-Nats World Series.  Both teams are red hot and a joy to follow.

It's almost too much for a dedicated fan of each team.  If Lewis Carroll had been a baseball fan, he might have used this phrase instead of merely putting it in a poem: "O, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

This is about the time of year that I used to wait for the phone to ring.  A college pal and I used to joke about it -- it would be Earl Weaver on the line, asking us to report to Baltimore as quickly as we could get up there to help the big team into the playoffs and on to the World Series.   "How's your arm?" we'd ask one another every few days.  "Threw my warmups this morning," the other might respond. "Fastball felt like a rocket...."

This was pure Walter Mittyism at its most ridiculous extension, of course.  I haven't played anything approaching organized baseball since I was a small boy with dreams of pitching for the Dodgers, and only one thing stood between me and the majors: Talent.  Just had none.

Well, I did have a wild arm, and a lot of professional baseball players have had them, but at least they had other qualities -- the ability to stand in to a 95 mph pitch, or to catch a blazing grounder and get it to first in time, or run like a scalded jackrabbit and steal second any time they wished. 

But I did have couple uniforms -- a heavy flannel Dodgers road gray uniform from Manny's Baseball Land, that my fan club gave me for a birthday present one year just in case the newspaper career thing went bad, and a lightweight Orioles home getup just in case Earl Weaver lost his mind and got me mixed up with someone who really could pitch in the fall campaign. 

Not sure what happened to those uniforms, but I still have the caps -- a Baltimore cap from the 1970s, and a more recent Washington cap after baseball came back to the capital. So if by chance I score a ticket for the playoffs of either team, I'll be ready to move on up.  And if by long-shot fortune the Birds and the Nats wind up in some sort of Beltway World Series,  I may have to shell out the big bucks for one of those satin-jacket warmup rigs to get ready for my first Series start.

Now, if I can just find my old glove, I may go down to the barn in a little bit and paint a strike zone on the side of the tractor shed, get in a little throwing time, brush up on my curve and my slurve and my dipsy doodle.  You just never know when you might need a trick pitch.  Wait, was that the phone ringing....?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Run for your life! Here come the weeds!

Up here on the top of Belcher Mountain, we have a short growing season, and it's a good thing, too. Otherwise we would have disappeared long ago under a mountain of greenbriar vines, crabgrass, squash vines, orchard grass, cucumber vines, timothy, tomato vines, locust shoots, dill weed, alfalfa, hawthorn, and new varieties of ill-tempered weeds that science has yet to discover. Well, ok, seems like it anyway.

But lest it seem like I'm complaining, let me take it all back. It has been marvellous to watch, this past month as the garden down by the creek started coming in like the legendary Wabash Cannonball came into the station -- with a rumble and a roar, if not exactly a jingle, too.  It took a while to get up steam, though. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, cukes and a half dozen other things that were planted in June sat there for a couple of months, pretty much ignoring the careful ministrations of this, that and the other: cool spring water piped in on a gravity-fed line from the old springhouse, a king's ransom in some of the prettiest compost you ever saw, careful additions of an organic fertilizer that looked like thin sand and cost roughly the same as gold dust.

The weather never really got hot, so it took a while for these plants to absorb enough sun to begin measuring up. Then shortly after July 4 we began getting some regular afternoon rains, and by the first week in August, everything was coming in like crazy.  (Well, ok, not the corn.  The corn we planted in late May, and which had begun pushing up before we left for a long trip, turned into a buffet for the crows, or some kind of bird. When we got back, there were maybe 21 pathetic stalks left, and so they have remained ever since, bedraggled sentinels reminding us of the folly of turning our backs on the predators nature sends us to remind us not to get too swelled-headed about our ability to squeeze food out of the ground.  Something got the eggplant we put out too, come to think of it. It has been so long.)

But otherwise it has been a month of bounty -- and of pulling weeds and mowing the tall grass and trying to keep up with the high tide of produce.  The tomatoes have been especially good -- anatomically correct Dolly Partons, nice red German Johnsons and hundreds and hundreds of cocktail tomatoes that have graced our plates for weeks on end.  The cucumbers now mostly repose in jars of bread-and-butter pickles.  The zukes and the yellow squash have made wonderful casseroles, and lot more went into freeze bags for the winter.  The banana peppers are rolling in at an unholy rate, some of the hotter ones destined to be pickled this afternoon, and the green peppers have been hollowed and stuffed and packed off to the freezer for dim evenings in January and February.  The potatoes have finally all been grabbled out, dusted off and put up in baskets under the house. We might even pick a pot of okra if the drizzle lets up.

It only took about 15 months of fence-building to cut down on the daily visits by bunnies and other critters of the fields and woods.  A neighbor reminds me that we've probably only insured that the rabbits cannot get out once they figure out how to get in, and that the deer will hop about anything we put up or else they'll just bull their way through. Maybe. But we put in about 270 feet of field fence stretched around new 6" posts. We topped that with another couple of feet of barbed wire -- my friends down home know it as bobwar -- and still something was getting in. So we ran through another 270 feet of 1-inch chicken wire, using about 1,500 zip strips to fasten it against the sturdier field fence, to further discourage the bunny invasion. We buried the bottom 6 inches or so of the chicken wire in the ground and piled on a goodly percentage of the million-or-so stones that my in-laws hauled out of the garden when they tilled each spring for going on 40 years.

I won't say it'll keep everything out of the garden.  I do expect it will slow unauthorized animals down at least a little until the pickins get slim and the frost takes the rest.  On the other hand, I also expect the deer will be up here by the house, gnawing down liriope and the last of the day lillies and whatever else they choose for a snack. Well, shoot, everybody's got to eat.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wisdom and wit of the late U.S. Rep. Caldwell Butler

I long admired Rep. Caldwell Butler in my reporting days in Washington, and was sorry when I read of his death last week.  I offered a remembrance of Butler's role to a newspaper I had not written for in decades, and Roanoke Times Editorial Page Editor Dwayne Yancey put this on his pages this morning:

The death of former U.S. Rep. Caldwell Butler of Roanoke July 28 was more than a sad moment in Virginia politics; it was a reminder that the model of the elected politician who chooses to do the right thing rather than bow to pressure of party or electorate has virtually disappeared from American politics. Don’t get me wrong: Caldwell Butler could be a fiery proponent of his Republican Party’s conservative mainstream, fighting against an entrenched state Democratic machine that controlled Virginia politics early in his career and bringing about the vibrant two-party political system that gives Old Dominion voters real choices in today’s highly-charged atmosphere.

Where Butler stood out was in the depth of his integrity – everything from his careful parsing of legislation to make sure it did what it purported to do, to his determination to ignore potential for personal political damage on questions of governmental ethics. Many regarded the owlish, bookish Butler as a modern-day Founding Father, as concerned about principle and fairness as about policy. He became a central figure in the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate impeachment inquiry. He at first regarded the committee as overloaded with “crazies” and maintained a stout defense of the president who helped him win election – right up until he concluded President Nixon had committed at least two impeachable offenses.

Butler’s remarkable speech about his vote, delivered 40 years ago on July 25 and reprinted on these pages in recent days, was the most riveting and memorable drawing of the line in the sands of politics I can recall while working in the Roanoke Times and World News’ Washington Bureau in the early 1970s and covering Virginia and N.C. politics for going on 40 years. He was one of several Republicans on the committee – an “unholy alliance,” as they put it – whose influential votes not only helped move the committee to adopt articles of impeachment, but sent a clear message to the American public that this was a bipartisan indictment of impermissible presidential conduct.

Butler might well have played an even more visible role in the continuing impeachment process had President Nixon not resigned on August 9, 1974, after the release of tape recordings showing the president was deeply involved in a cover-up. His resignation came before the full House was to vote to formally adopt articles of impeachment and send them to the Senate for a trial whether to remove President Nixon. For weeks, Butler had quietly been discussing, on an entirely off the record basis, his views on the impeachment process with my colleague in the Washington Bureau, Wayne Woodlief, for a book that might appear after the process ended. Butler was thought to be the perfect lawmaker to serve as one of the House “managers” of the impeachment trial in the Senate, where House members would act as prosecutors and make the case for the president’s removal. The Roanoke Republican would have been a formidable opponent for the president’s dwindling number of supporters in the Senate, and it would have given him a world-wide platform to demonstrate his legal and oratorical skills. I have no doubt Butler would have ignored the opportunity for dazzling publicity and concentrated instead on doing what he regarded as an unpleasant but necessary job. President Nixon’s resignation short-circuited that book.

That summer of 1974 was fraught with strain and turmoil for members of both parties struggling to resolve a great constitutional quandary. Butler’s wife, June (who died June 28), read to him from Woodward and Bernstein’s book, “All the President’s Men” at bedtime, but the calls and letters from Nixon’s supporters kept rolling in. Late in the proceedings I spoke with Butler and wrote about how he was handling the pressure. The phone rang at my Arlington home the night before the story was to run. An editor had a question that went something like this; “Jack, in your story you say that Caldwell Butler keeps an $80,000 concubine down at Southern Pines. Didn’t you mean ‘condominium’ instead of ‘concubine’?” Knowing that Butler liked a good story, I confessed the almost-error to him the following week when he got back to Washington. Butler quipped something like, “I’m sorry they caught that. It would have done wonders for my reputation.”

Even in duress, Butler knew when to laugh at himself. Then he went back to work.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Owed' to an Old Chain Saw: We're both wore out

When I bought the thing, I was 41 years old, still young enough to saw down entire forests, cut it into fireplace lengths, split it and stack it. Or so I thought, anyway. I'd had a couple of used chainsaws -- an old Poulan I bought from a hardware store in Zebulon after its first owner had brought it back, and then a fouled up McGregor that someone had thrown out on the street in frustration, as I was soon to learn why: It ran poorly, cut badly and served mostly to foul the air and tick off the operator.

So one day I walked into Wilson's Outdoor Equipment in Raleigh and listened to someone who knew what he was doing when it came to chain saws.  Walked out an hour later with the Stihl 028 Wood Boss with a 20 inch bar and a bag full of chains.   It sounded like an old British Small Arms motorcycle I had had when we lived in Washington, but ran faster and cut quicker than anything I ever saw -- when I had a sharp chain on it, anyway.

I cut trees all over Wake County with that saw, took down some monsters in our yard and pitched in on those occasions when Raleigh got a freak ice storm or wet snowfall that brought down trees in our neighborhood. Hardwoods, softwoods, junk wood, good stuff -- it ran through wood like a hot knife through warm butter.

It was particularly good at laying down about 10 tons of old locust and two-foot oaks and 10-inch maples that occupy much of the old 66-acre farm that we have been trying to keep tidy for the past 25 years or so.  We burn a lot of firewood, and once we built a house up in the Blue Ridge, the Wood Boss was what kept us warm twice a year -- all summer when I was cutting and splitting and stacking that wood, and all winter when the winds howled outside as we burned wood in the soapstone stove.

There was a rising price. As I got older, I noticed that when I was cutting with the thing, my arms and upper chest would ache for days.  Didn't feel that back in the late 1980s, but after the turn of the 21st century I realized a couple of hours with the Wood Boss would flat wear me out.  I'd still be feeling it on Tuesday after a long Saturday afternoon getting up firewood.

Reckon I went through 50 or more chains on that thing.  Found a man who sharpened them up cheap, and mourned when he died too early of cancer.  Took the saw to the shop twice a year to have it tuned and tweaked and cleaned, and once had the thing rebuilt for more than the cost of my  first car, an old '56 Chevy Bel Air with the small block V8.  Both ran like tops when they were running on new plugs. Both coughed and sputtered and bucked and shuddered when the plugs were fouled.

The last three years or so, the Wood Boss has spent more time in the shop than in the kerf of a big tree.  It was slow to start, started throwing chains, gobbled up bar oil and sometimes just quit when it got too hot to work.  I took it in last week and showed it to the fellow who has kept it going for the last few of its 28-year life, and he shook his head.  "Can't hardly get parts for these things anymore," he said with a regretful look on his face. "I'll call you when I get a look inside."

That call came yesterday. He might be able to fix it up for a short time, but chances are its best cutting days were long ago.  Might be best, he thought, to just consider it worn out and put it out to pasture.  Made sense to me.  That old saw with its long bar and full tank could weigh something like 14 pounds.  But the new line of high- efficiency saws would go considerably lighter -- not to mention how light I'd be in the wallet once I bought one of those things.  They're real proud of 'em, the Stihl folks are.

I haven't shelled out for one yet, but that day is coming. I've gotten up seven or eight cords for the coming winter and marked standing dead trees that will come down this winter when the weather allows -- and when my knees and hands and elbows recover from splitting a huge oak across the road this past month.  Like that old saw, I've had my fill for a little while.   Rode hard and put up wet, as my Dad used to say.   When my arms and knees quit hurting, I'll go shopping for a new one.  Doesn't look like that will be any time soon. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Curious Case of the Cast Iron Compass Rose

Back in our sailing days we used to collect the odd item of nautical descent -- a brass signal cannon that fired 10-gauge blanks and put out a satisfactory BANG!, a gimballed brass salon lamp that swung more or less level when the weather got heavy, a big oil painting depicting topsail schooners racing into the dawn.  One of our prize finds was a decorative, cast-iron compass rose.  Now, a compass rose usually is a handy device printed on nautical charts and showing not just the four key directions but also all the other points of the compass, so you can quickly plot a compass course using a pair of parallel rulers and the rose as a reference.  Wikipedia puts it this way: "A compass rose, sometimes called a windrose, is a figure on a compass, map, nautical chart or monument used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions—North, East, South and West—and their intermediate points."

Our cast-iron compass, found while poking through an antiques store on Maryland's Eastern Shore with my college roommate, was entirely for show, the sort of thing you'd hang on your wall.  It did not bear the finer points of a compass rose printed on a chart, but if you only wanted to know which way North was, or South, East or West, it was a very helpful thing.  We cleaned it up and mounted it on a brick wall on one side of our patio in Raleigh, then later when we built our dream house in the Blue Ridge, we mounted it on a massive beam in the great room, with the rosette angled slightly so that N pointed, more or less, North.  In the going-on three years it hung there, only one person noticed why it was oriented the way it was.  Maybe everyone else realized it pointed north and thought it not even worth mentioning; only the late Jim "Squirrel" Garrison commented on it.

Then one day in June of 2010, lightning struck the house and burned it to the ground while we were in Greensboro fixing to go to the beach.  We found very few things from that fire -- the carcass of a .357 magnum pistol, a lump of silver that had once been a set of family silverware and a round rock that I'd picked up somewhere in the yard when the foundation was dug.   Never found any trace of many things, including the cast iron compass rose.   Well, it was just old stuff, and nobody got hurt.  Not at all in the tragedy category, just a pain in the neck for a while until we rebuilt.

A few months ago my old roomie, a lawyer who lives on the Eastern Shore and has spent much of his career putting bad people in jail and serving up Chesapeake Bay crabs to visitors from down South, idly inquired, offhand, whether I'd ever found another compass rose.  I had figured I'd never find another like the other, but I think I expressed some interest. But I didn't think any more of it. So the other day, while celebrating a birthday with an extremely advanced age that pretty much puts me solidly in the ranks of geezerdom, Our Man Terry of UPS drove up with an interesting package -- flat, and a couple of feet square.  Inside lay what I believe to be the exact same model of a compass rose as the one that melted down in the 2010 fire. It now hangs on our kitchen wall, along with something else: A note written in marker on a rectangle of cardboard, prefaced by an old college-era nickname that he and I have applied to each other since, oh, 1966 or so.  It read:  "Buckflap: Try to not melt down this one. S--."

Buckflap, I will do my best to see this one stays on the wall, unmelted, and pointing north. J--.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A little help for Graveyard Fields

About six months ago I was idling my way through the evening, listening to the Steep Canyon Rangers' newest album, Tell The Ones I Love.  It had been a gift from my daughter, who for the past 20 years or so made it her mission to make sure I got new music worth listening to.  I was reading through the info on the CD sleeve when I realized I was hearing their song "Graveyard Fields" -- and I sat bolt upright. What a coincidence.  These guys were playing an instrumental with the title of a stunning place on the Blue Ridge Parkway, right at the same time the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation was undertaking a new project to provide improvements at that site.

What I didn't know was the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band that has toured with famed banjoist/comedian Steve Martin and singer Edie Brickell, didn't just pick the name of that song out of a hat.  They had grown up near Graveyard Fields, a mountaintop valley at 5,100 feet elevation on the Parkway that was so named because the wind-torn tree stumps, covered in moss and vines, looked from a distance like a great, ancient graveyard -- or so the story goes, anyway. They visited there as youngsters, hiked across the valley, picnicked there with their families and as grownup performers found themselves still drawn to the place.

This is a familiar story for many Blue Ridge Parkway visitors -- they first visited as children, kept on coming back for years, brought their children with them when they became adults and remain attracted to the utterly immense beauty of those dramatic views, the sometimes challenging trails and the sense of wonder the Parkway offers. 

That's the way it is with Carolyn Ward, the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a private foundation that serves as the official fundraising partner of the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway. Ward heard about the song and quickly contacted the Steep Canyon Rangers to see if they could help publicize the campaign to make improvements at the Graveyard Fields site. The Parkway's list of improvements includes:

  • Expansion of the overlook parking area from 17 spaces to 40 spaces.
  • Placement of a new three-unit, ADA compliant vault toilet restroom facility constructed adjacent to the parking area.
  • Improvements to US Forest Service trails that include installing boardwalk, constructing check dams, improving drainage, closing non-system trails, and modifying boardwalk sections to fit new design features.
  • Installation of a new trail map at trailhead and four additional interpretive signs on the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail. 
  • Reducing the speed limit in the area and eliminating parking along the road shoulder.
Paul Bonesteel, left, filming the Steep Canyon Rangers at Graveyard Fields

The Steep Canyon Rangers were glad to help. Soon they were before the cameras of filmmaker Paul Bonesteel, a member of the Foundation's advisory panel and a highly accomplished documentary maker. The result is a first-rate, seven-minute video that can be found here.

So if you're looking for a way to help the Steep Canyon Rangers and thousands of other fans of the Blue Ridge Parkway to keep the 469-mile Parkway in good shape, here's your chance. Contact the Blue Ridge Parkway  and make a contribution to the Graveyard Fields project, or to the Foundation generally.  They'll put the money to good use. 

There's something else: if you like what the Steep Canyon Rangers are doing and would like to hear them live in a beautiful Blue Ridge amphitheater, make plans now to attend their concert at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax on October 11.  You can contact the Blue Ridge Music Center -- also operated by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation -- here or you can go straight to the Ranger's concert page here. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4, 1906 was a big day in the Betts family

On this day in 1906, my father was born in a white house across Jones Street from the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. It would have been a big day in that house, which belonged to my grandmother's family.  He was the first child of Mary Atkinson Monie Betts and Joseph Shawen Betts, a Greensboro dentist and horseman, and grandson of Alexander Davis Betts, a Civil War chaplain of the 30th N.C. who had ridden with Jackson and Lee.

Family legend is that John Monie Betts -- his friends called him "Windy" -- got his gentle streak from his grandfather, who ministered to little Methodist churches all across the state of North Carolina and in parts of Southside Virginia. Old A.D. lived with my father's family in Greensboro when he was growing up, and Dad heard tales of that awful war most every day of his youth. My father always said the old parson had taught him many things about life, including the obligations of duty, the power of a kind word and the value of patience.
John "Windy" Betts, future sailor, about 1911

They were lessons that stuck with my father and served him well during the lean years of the Great Depression and the difficult years with a sometimes rebellious son who thought his parents were too old to be raising children. But he was wise enough to make me stay up until the end of that game in 1957 when Carolina won the national championship, and he drove me all over three or four states to go hiking and camping, a feat I appreciated more when I got the same arthritis of the knees that he endured on those outings.  Through it all he had a thoughtful smile and a steady hand. To this day I can't remember hearing him raise his voice, except in delight when Phil Ford threw one in from downtown for the Tar Heels, or spun by some feckless defender to lay it in the bucket.

Somehow we managed to patch things up pretty well when I grew up a little, and the bond between us grew over the years. In the final years of his life, before cancer put him down fast, we went in on an old sailboat together and often cruised the waters of Bugg's Island Lake, one of the largest in our region.  He died at nearly 88 in 1994; had he lived, he would have been 108 today -- and, I expect, he would have a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips.  Happy Birthday, Dad.