Real News

In this divisive time, real news/fake news, patriotic/unpatriotic, heroes and pretenders, some perspective might be appropriate. It seems appropriate that I write this story, because I continue to be baffled that, how, for political expediency, Donald Trump felt it was okay to attack John McCain because of his being shot down and captured during Vietnam. Add to that attack, the Trumpian attacks against the intelligence and justice community, as well as his demand for a military parade—an idea rejected by President Eisenhower because according to him, “it makes us look weak” and the story, I am about to relate, becomes more than just another war story.

This is not my story, but it is a real story as told to me by a life-long friend, Jim Horn, who lived it, felt it, and remembers it, so just maybe we can walk back from the precipice of division that our President and his minions foment to keep, or take power.

CONTEXT:

To gain context, we return to August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. On August 2, 4, 1964, the USS Maddox was involved in an incident that led to direct involvement in the War in Vietnam by the United States (the U.S. had been providing advisors to South Vietnam prior to this). Following the incident reports (now believed to be largely exaggerated) told of a confrontation between North Vietnamese ships and planes and the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, the United States Congress passed, on August 7, 1964, the Tonkin Resolution which authorized the President to send U.S. troops to southeast Asia without further authorization from Congress (this resolution was repealed in 1967), but many more would go before the war ended.

In October, 1967, ironically, John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, captured, held prisoner and tortured, finally released at the end of the war, in 1973. Senator McCain is important to this story for two reasons: (1) being shot down and captured, and (2) being denigrated by a politician because of this very thing and his willingness to talk truth to power even in the face of attempts to belittle him.

It is the belittling of McCain by, then candidate Trump, and McCain’s fight with cancer, that made the telling of this particular story, at this time, all-the-more important.

STORY:

JULY 25, 1970, 1800 Hours, a Wednesday, aboard a cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin. How do I remember? Well, it’s an event that has never left me. The details wander in and out of my mind, but they never leave and now, at 69, in a world of politics by division and personal attacks, it seems that I need to tell the story of success, failure and what conflict brings.

Positive Identification Radar Advisory Zone (PIRAZ), located in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, part of a carrier group that, among other things, launched air attacks over North Vietnam. Our ship, however, had a wholly different role. We were watching and listening to learn the intentions and actions of the enemy and to aid in responding appropriately. Further, we provided radar and general support, including rescue, for the carrier and the planes that were launched to aid in the war effort.

This zone is where I could be found on July 25, 1970. As a radioman, I rarely saw the light of day. Radiomen worked 8 hours on and 8 hours off, 24/7 and rarely were found on deck, but, daily, I was listening to the sounds of those directly in the fray, knowing that my responses and focus could well mean life or death. This day, however, I had occasion to be in the open air for a short while because my job brought me there. The weather was overcast, but with a high sky and the water was glass smooth. It was the kind of smooth you could have seen on Lake Martin, near my home of Dadeville, Alabama, shortly after a summer thunderstorm passed through and the weather calmed—think mirror.

The daily work had been normal, with sorties being launched by the carrier and the radar ships, like mine, listening and watching, as we were assigned. Occasionally, we provided support to different branches, particularly the Air Force, when they were flying into our area. An air controller was designated as “flight follower” for each Navy or Air Force formation of strike aircraft to track the strike’s progress and offer information required to complete the mission. Flight followers worked with as many as 24 aircraft on a single frequency.

On this July day, a plane crashed, a NAVY, F-4, flying Combat Air Patrol, which meant that it circled the area around the ships on guard duty, if you will, to protect the ships and returning aircraft from any MIG fighters that might come out of North Vietnam. It was the starboard lookout that made the call of a plane down. What happened to the plane is truly unknown, even today, but the distress was sudden and catastrophic, leaving little, or no, time for the pilot and weapons officer (navigator) to make any decisions. It was known that the weapons officer/navigator was in the water, but no one had seen the pilot eject.

All we knew was that the wounded plane was in the water and our ship was called to general quarters. General quarters’ calls meant everyone, NOW. I had been in the mess, having dinner, and felt our engines begin to spool up to full power so I headed to the radio room and upon arriving found all the stations manned, and, being curious, I went to a location where I could observe what was happening. As I was coming on deck, I observed one of my fellow sailors, T.C. Combs, climbing high, carrying a rifle. He was going up to the roof over the bridge in order shoot sharks as they would inevitably come and would be a very real danger to anyone in the water.

At top speed, we raced to the downed navigator. Our “whale” boat with 4 crewmen and a diver was lowered into the water and rushed to the one man we could see. It took about half an hour to get him back on board and though we were able to rescue him from the waters, the plane, with the pilot on board sank quickly. The Gulf of Tonkin is about 230 feet deep where the plane went down. and the diver, along with others, searched for the pilot, but to no avail.

We never saw the pilot, but I, along with others, would learn from the navigator that the pilot likely stayed with the plane to insure it would not hit any of the ships that were racing to provide help.

The reason for the crash may never be known, since it is unlikely that the U.S. Government will ever retrieve the plane. We are left to speculate whether, or not, there were mechanical issues or hostile fire, but the result is undisputed.

I have never shaken the feeling that the pilot could have saved himself, nor have I ever lost sight of the fact that this man, whom I did not know, took the action that he did to insure the safety of people he did not know.

COMMENT:

This pilot was not a loser. Like John McCain, he did his duty and suffered for his actions. Is this a man that should, for purely political reasons, be belittled by any politician, especially one who did not serve in any capacity—no reserve, no National Guard, no active duty, no alternative service? I think not.

That pilot, on July 25, 1970, died serving his country, died saving the lives of people he did not know, and to my knowledge is likely at the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin today. John McCain suffered injuries, torture and imprisonment for 6 long years and, along with others like him, did this in service of this country. Neither man was given a military parade for his sacrifice, nor has McCain demanded one.

We are still sending young men and women to war and making “mouth-noises” of support, while providing not near enough support after they return, but even that pales in comparison with the neglect shown those who returned from Vietnam, so no one has the right to denigrate these men and women for their service, their wounds or their deaths.

The hubris of our President, a man who sits in what is supposed to be the most important governmental chair in the world, is astounding. He feels compelled to belittle anyone who disagrees or challenges his world view, whatever his world view might be, because he has, certainly, demonstrated that his views are malleable. Everything is about him, personally. He would spend tens of millions of dollars for a parade, ostensibly to show power, rather than provide services for veterans. There is not a self-sacrificing bone in his body.

He plays to the worst in all of us—pitting races against each other, pitting rich versus poor, sick versus well, educated against those who seek knowledge. How can he even come close to understanding the mind of John McCain, or that pilot who still sits at the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin?

I lay no claim to all the answers, but I know a bully when I see and hear one and Trump is just that. He is a man for his own season. He has sold many a bill of goods based on hate and manipulation and my fear is that by the time he is through, we may not be able to recover.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

While the words and opinions of the commentary are mine, I cannot take credit for the story. This is the experience of Jim Horn, my friend and high school classmate. The experiences are his and the impact of these events remain with him 48 years later. As you read this, try to put yourself on that cruiser and feel what Jim felt on that summer evening. Feel what the family of the multitudes of pilots, navigators, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers might feel when their efforts are belittled because they were the victims of the hazards of war.

While John McCain survived his ordeal, many did not and anyone who would denigrate Senator McCain’s service does a disservice to the office holds and, moreover, to the other people who have served. We, as a republic, cannot tolerate this kind of attitude and then ask our young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way.

In telling this story, I am confident that Jim Horn agrees that John McCain was done a disservice by candidate Trump and the fact that President Trump has not personally and publicly apologized for his disrespectful words diminishes the office he, Trump, holds.

By publishing this story, I wish to acknowledge the service of John McCain, the unknown missing pilot, and all soldiers, no matter their role, male, female, gay or straight. Thank you.

RUNNING OFF A CLIFF

 

Baseball, the perfect game, with bases 90 feet apart and set out in a diamond shape, 90°angles, 60’6” to the pitcher’s rubber from home plate, 9 players a side, 9 innings with 3 outs and 3 strikes. It’s a players’ game with the true appreciation coming to those who played from childhood.

It was hot, damn hot, Alabama, 4th of July hot the day the Earth disappeared.

I was about 15, or 16, playing in a baseball jamboree of sorts on the field back of the Jackson’s Gap School the day the Earth vanished.

There was a 4th of July celebration going on with burgers, hot dogs, watermelon-the works. I believe this was an annual event, but these years later, I am not sure.

There were a large number of people present, with politicking, business talk, story telling and just a great small town atmosphere, typical of the early to mid 1960’s. This is not to say the people were naïve or unaware of the issues of the day. The Cuban Missile crisis was not long past, the civil rights movement was growing, stories of Buddhist monks were setting themselves on fire and it was on the nightly news, but despite it all, the people in Jackson’s Gap, Dadeville, Eagle Creek and the surrounding areas found time to gather, laugh, eat and talk—just be friends.

Part of the celebration was a continuous run of baseball games that lasted all day. The teams were sponsored by civic clubs, or car dealerships or individuals and on this day when some would be on vacation, players were loaned from one team to another if it was necessary to have 9 players.

On this day, I was in right field, not my regular position (I usually played left field), but adjustments had to be made, so there I was.

While the field was all dirt, it was smooth, so there was rarely a bad bounce and it had no fence in the outfield, so a ball over a fielders head could roll for a while, thus making an inside-the-park homerun an all too real possibility. The park was for all intents and purposes endless.

During one of the later games, a ball rose toward right field having been hit quite hard. I turned to run for the ball without looking toward where I was running, rather with my eyes looking back toward the oncoming ball. As I reached up, I could feel the ball settle into the pocket of my glove and just as I squeezed the ball, I ran out of ground.

It seems that deep in right field the ground fell away, sloping downward for about 10 feet, but there was a decidedly steep first step down and as I went over the edge, I disappeared, dropping and rolling to the bottom of the slope.

I would be told that my disappearance looked like those cartoon characters that keep running long after the ground is gone, but, unlike those characters, there was no stopping in mid-air with shocked realization, just the disappearing part.

Somehow, I managed to hold onto the ball, probably because I was so tensed up as I fell that the ball had no chance to escape my grasp and I suffered no injury, other than to my dignity, which, as we know, is important to teenagers. Nonetheless, I survived the teasing and kidding and have never forgotten the day I ran off a cliff.

The Substitute

 

Back in the early 1990’s, I did some work as a substitute teacher at a Murphy High School, then the largest high school, by student population, in the state.

While I did some of the day-at-a-time work, I was twice what was called a “long-term” substitute where I took a teacher’s place for more than 9 weeks. On one occasion, I took over 2 weeks into the spring semester and concluded the year and, on the other, I started the year and went through the first 9 weeks.

By doing this, I gained even more respect for my Mother and sister, both of whom were teachers, as well as a great number of friends in the teaching profession.

Many of the faculty members suggested that taking over the class in the spring would be problematic, since the teacher had, apparently checked out, both physically and mentally, and was using sick leave and vacation to reach retirement at the end of the year. He was thought to have the poorest behaved classes in the school.

I was teaching social studies. At the time, and maybe even now, Murphy was on the block system where subjects were taught a semester at a time, not all year long. The classes to which I was assigned were made up of what can only be described, by and large, as “Freshmores”. Most of the students were by academic standing freshmen, but by time in school should have been sophomores. The students were not special needs or otherwise in need of special handling, rather they were unmotivated (there were exceptions).

I started the classes with a new description of what was going to take place and how we could all survive and progress. I, my students and the “Fertile Crescent” would have a good semester. Most know the old saying, “People plan, God laughs”, well it certainly applied here. By the end of the second week, I was the proud possessor of 11 decks of cards, all confiscated when students were caught playing cards in class. This caused some substantial whining and when one particular student said that it was like stealing, I invited him to come with me to see the principal after school and that if Ms. Sparkman, the principal, wanted me to give the cards back, I would. Shockingly, he was a no show to meet with the principal.

I was teaching two subjects: the same course work first, second and sixth periods, different course work third and fourth periods with a planning period during fifth period.

About two and half weeks in, it was test time. As I was explaining this, the refrain was for a “multiple guess” test. Notice the word “choice” was not the description, but “guess”. Those of you have taught can appreciate the distinction. Try as I might to explain that such tests were not the best, the begging never ceased. Finally, I agreed. Twenty five questions-multiple guess.

Not having been born as a fully grown adult, but having attended high school and college, myself, I decided that I would remind 1st and 2nd periods not to tell the questions and answers to 6th period because they, 1st and 2nd would only hurt themselves. As a protection, I had planned to use two tests for 1st and 2nd periods, as well as 3rd and 4th on their subject matter. The questions would be the same, but the answers re-arranged. 6th period would get a different set of tests from 1st and 2nd with the questions and answers re-arranged. I am sure the teachers among you can appreciate this.

Test day arrives and as the students sit down, I advise them to put their books and notes on a table near my desk. The immediate complaint was to whine about the test not being “open book” and that I “had not told them to study”. Really, they needed a separate admonition to study?

The moaning continued as the tests were handed out—there were 6 options to pick from on each question—guess, indeed.

The first 4 periods covering two different courses continued with the requisite complaining about not being told to study and that they expected only 3 answers to guess from and on and on.

There was one moment in 4th period where in clear view a student would slide the test up, look down, slide the paper down and answer, then slide the paper up. After about three or four of these movements, I walked over and asked for the papers, finding, to my amazement, hidden notes. Taking the test and the notes and advising him that he would get a zero for cheating, the student offered this explanation: “Mr. Pennington, I wasn’t cheating, I was refreshing my memory.”

As the 6th period appeared, they were positively giddy with excitement to take the test. I handed out the tests, knowing that first and second period had not taken my caution to heart and had shared what they believed the answers to be with their 6 period friends. The 6th period tests were completed, with one exception, in 5 to 8 minutes and as the young woman who took 25 minutes turned in her test, the 15 others were anxious to have their tests graded.

As they requested, I began grading. Someone noticed two keys and asked and I stated that I had used two tests for 6th period. That brought about a great deal of moaning and complaints of lack of fairness, but nothing compared to the cries of despair when I told them that they had different tests from 1st and 2nd periods.

As you can imagine, the test results were horrible. The 6th period scores ranged from 0 to 36 with one notable exception—the girl who took 25 minutes had apparently studied and made 92–talk about a scale killer.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth about the scores was great, so in a gesture of kindness I agreed to re-give the tests with the highest score to count. I advised the students that they could take their corrected tests home and that the new test would come from that material. They, of course, wanted the same tests over, but I told them no and that the test would be on my terms.

The second test was 15 questions and a mix of fill-in the blank, multiple choice and true/false. Needless to say, the object lesson of the first test was not appreciated and with one exception, the scores for 6th period were horrible. Again, they were offended that I had used different tests.

I looked at all of these kids, all of whom were smart enough to make B’s and C’s at a minimum, and said “y’all need to understand, I went to high school and college and that nothing they were doing was new”. I am not sure they believed me, but the next tests were taken at a slower pace.

Growing Up Lessons, part two

CARDS

I come from a card playing family. Not a gambling family, per se, though that did occur, but rather the art of cards-strategies, tactics, gamesmanship was the primary focus. And, winning-no matter the game, no matter the stakes–winning.

In our house, my Dad was the card player, later giving way to me. Oh, Mother played, but she was more of a social player. That is not to say she was not good at it when she wanted to be, she just was not concerned about it.

I am sure my Dad’s interest came from his dad, Pop, and from down time during WWII.

The primary games were Gin and Bridge. Pop was ruthless at both and while my Dad was not quite as ruthless, he did not believe in giving any quarter to his opponent.

I learned the fundamentals of Gin at about age 10. Once having learned the fundamentals, the remaining lessons were learned by repeated drubbings until you quit making mistakes.

It seems so simple–put together runs of suited cards, at least 3 in a row, or blocks of the same number, at least 3, then try to get the remains points in your hand down to zero and “knock”, “go out”, “go down”, win the hand. Play hands until someone reaches 100 points. The games has other, more complicated and subtle, aspects, but I am sure you get the idea.

Like my Dad, VR, Pop was a golfer and he belonged to a golf club in Birmingham. The family rumor was that he paid his club dues, not from his golf winnings, though he had those, but by playing Gin in the card room/lounge at the club. I cannot personally confirm this, because during my few visits to his golf club, I was not allowed, due to tender years, in the card room.

As a family, when at my grandparents, we would often play partners. Two teams of two and you would switch opponents as each hand was completed. The pairings were usually, me and one of my cousins paired with Pop and either VR, my Aunt Virginia (a hell of a good player, herself), or one of my uncles, Jack or Robert. Having Pop as a partner was a good news bad news thing–he was the best player, so that was good, but he did not tolerate bone-headed play from his partners (he wanted to win, even family games), so you were subject to an ass chewing if you made mistakes.

Pop had a term, Pussel, he used, on occasion, when addressing both in good situations and bad–tone of voice was everything. I do not know the origin of the term and have not heard it, save a few references from cousins, since his death nearly 50 years ago. If you misplayed a hand you could get a “What the hell were you thinking, Pussel.” The fact that your parent was sitting there did not deter him.

Bridge was the other game of cards played by the Pennington clan. Bridge is a whole new level of complicated. Two pairs of people competing against each other, talking in code to their partners in order to ascertain what cards the partner has, listening to the code of the opponents to determine what they may have. The code is called bidding; the idea is to win the bid and the play the hand. To further complicate things the partner of the winning bidder has to lay his hand down face up. His/her participation in that hand ends–they are the dummy (if the bidding was poorly done, they could actually feel like a dummy).

In order for the bidder to win, they must take 6 tricks (cards played with the winning trick being the highest of the suit or trump-trump being the suit named in the winning bid). Once the 6 tricks are won, the player has made “book” and must win the number of tricks bid, e.g., 3 spades. As convoluted as this sounds, it is an over simplification of the game–a game filled with doubles, re-doubles, passes, preempts, jump shifts, small slams, grand slams, finesses and on and on.

VR introduced me to the game when I was eleven and I played at family gatherings with VR and my aunt, my uncles and a cousin or two until about age 12, when I jumped to the big time and played with Pop. The most memorable of these was being partnered with Pop, playing against VR and Aunt Virginia. Things rocked along pretty well, with only a few mutterings about under bidding hands, or not playing defense to perfection. There was, however, the one hand-isn’t there always, the one hand. Somehow we had gotten to a small slam, which meant we had to win 12 of the 13 possible tricks and I had to play it and Pop’s hand would be the dummy. Six Hearts-I remember it to this day, well over 50 years later.

Pop started to get up to “help” me, but VR and Virginia protested and after muttering in a stage whisper “shit”, he sat down. Keep in mind, I am 12 at the time. Well, the saying “in for a penny, in for a pound”, was never more appropriate to an occasion. I took the first 11 tricks without much agony, but nagging at me the whole time was a question as to the location of the jack and 10 of hearts. I needed them to be one each in the hands of my opponents, because if one opponent held them I would lose the next two tricks and come up short. The cards did not break correctly and I would not make slam. The cards broke badly.

Pop was apoplectic and said “Well, Pussel, you sure screwed that up”. I was looking for some aid and comfort from VR and Virginia, but none came. So, I said, somewhat belligerently, how would you have played it. He went through what he would have done and Virginia interjected that had he played the hand his way, she and VR would have won 2 more tricks, making us down 3 instead of 1.

We played for another hour or so with relatively little drama.

Before anyone gets exorcised about what Pop did, playing Gin and Bridge with him taught me a couple of things. The first was even if you screwed up the card game, he loved you. And, second and more importantly, the cards don’t always break right and the only thing you can do is play the next hand.

Life is the same. In most situations, family always loves you and when things go bad, all you can do is keep on going.

Also, you now have a new word that can be used in a myriad of ways–Pussel. Enjoy it and use it courtesy of the Pennington clan.

Growing Up Lessons, Part One

The title would suggest something deep and significant, but I think the growing up lessons learned here are more about how we, my generation, learned lessons from our parents, their friends and town folk.

This is intended to be lighthearted, in large part, but there could be some more serious aspects. As the title suggests, more parts will come as my scattered mind develops “cogent” thoughts.

Humor and Valuable Lessons

I will start with Golf, yes, golf. There was a group of men that my Dad played golf with on Wednesday afternoon and Sunday afternoon. Many will remember that in Dadeville, the courthouse and many businesses-the bank for example-closed on Wednesday afternoon and opened on Saturday morning in order to allow farmers, sawmillers, pulpwooders etc. to come into town and do business.

So, my Dad and some others played golf, first at Saugahatchee Country Club between Auburn and Opelika, the Alexander City Country Club (Central Alabama Community College sits on the site of that golf course), followed by Willow Point and, for a good number, Midway.

My introduction came as a caddie for my Dad. Yes, in those days the players walked. For my services, I was paid the princely sum of $1.50 for 18 holes, or about $.35 per hour. With this came the bonus of food. On a few occasions, I carried double and would then get $3.00 for 18 holes. Wealth knew no bounds.

A value that I recognized some years later was the introduction to the world of adult men, especially when they were relaxed and not about the business of making a living. In a less than comprehensive list, I can name a few of the men with whom I walked fairways, occasionally the rough, and listened to their banter and their advice. Alton Wright, who, to my parents’ consternation, insisted on my calling him Alton—not Mr. Alton, or Mr. Wright, Chal Greene, Claude Young, Robert Wilder, Charlie Smith, Dan Dothard and many others, some from Alex City, some from Auburn/Opelika. To those I have left out, I apologize to your families.

Claude Young taught me how to keep up with the bets. I am not sure he would want this known, but I learned about match play (total score doesn’t matter, just each hole), 2 down automatics, this is how bets multiply because if you have lost two holes without winning one, a new bet joins the affray automatically. This can lead to having 5 or 6 bets going at once. Multiply this over the number of men playing on a given day and it can be daunting.

Chal Greene taught me two things: 1. The art of the needle—how to pick and poke at someone with good humor in order to distract them and get in their head. When I began to actually play with these men, he used it on me, and 2. How to carry a drink while riding in a cart without spilling a drop—hold the cup lightly between your thumb and middle finger so the cup rocks gently as you bumped along. By the way, his method works and I continue to use it.

Alton Wright and Robert Wilder explained the value of the strategic “prop” (proposition) bet. Such a bet on the golf course would include extra bets on making a particular putt, or hitting a particular shot within so many feet of the hole. I have on several occasions seen one, or the other, put a $10.00 bill in the hole and tell his opponent that if he made the putt, it was his.

My Dad taught me to be patient—well, he tried, anyway. He had the ability to forget a shot once it was hit, no matter how good, or how bad, and move on to the next one. (He did, as those who knew him can imagine, use the good shots to poke at his opponents and see how they would respond). He, also, taught me that the most important holes were the last 3, because that’s when all the bets were decided and if you could win these, then you would win the money. He won these a lot and Claude Young and Charlie Smith told me that when it came to making money putts, he was the most cold-blooded of the group and that nothing seemed to bother him. Mr. Greene told me that if he had to pick a partner to make one putt, he wanted VR.

My senior year in undergraduate school, the spring before VR’s stroke, I played in the Sunday game. At that time, except for the lay off during finals, I was playing pretty well, shooting in the mid to low 70’s. (I wish I was able to do that now).
I was put on a team with VR, Chal Greene and Claude Young. The betting scheme was convoluted, but suffice it to say there were 14 teams playing a combination of 9 bets over 27 holes. All three of the men, tried to tell whoever was making up the teams that they might want to put me somewhere else, but they would hear nothing of it. I guess they assumed I would not help the team. Anyway, we won 8 bets outright and tied the 9th, taking home about $450.00 each. Mr. Chal and Mr. Claude laughed and needled the other men unmercifully and bought my beer. Several men complained that it was unfair that VR and I won so much of the money. Mr. Chal responded, while his arm was draped on my shoulder, that had we lost the man would not have felt sorry for us having to pay. The response of “well that’s different” just made Mr. Chal laugh harder. Mr. Claude told me to enjoy this, because VR and I would not be paired again—he was right.

These men taught me etiquette, golf etiquette, at least, and it carries over. Don’t talk (listen and you might learn something), don’t stand in someone’s line (don’t get in the way); repair divots and ball marks (if you damage it, fix it); count all your shots (honesty and honor are part of who you are, or should be) and keep confidences (if you hear something, unless you know (actually know) it is ok to tell others, don’t).

But, what they taught me most of all is: be friends, enjoy each other’s company and don’t take everything too seriously. These men had been to war, grown up in part during the depression, so they savored their friendships and time together. They savored light-hearted time.

REQUEST:

In the future parts, I will write about fishing, especially with Madge Caldwell, hunting, tennis and Joe Oliver taking us to Alex City to play on Cal Allison’s Court in the Russell compound and anything else I can think of. If some of you who know me, read this, and have some memories you believe I may recall as well, let me know.

LIBRARY PEOPLE

I use the Mobile Public Library on a regular basis-the main one on Government Street and Washington Avenue. The building is a grand edifice, a true tribute to what libraries ought to be.
The main entrance is off Washington Avenue and when you enter passing the main desk, the new arrival books and up a few steps into the main room, filled with over-stuffed chairs and tables with chairs surrounded by the latest fiction.
It was in this room that I sat down with one of the “regulars”-people who come to the library every day to read and just hang out. I had told my wife that I was going to see if any people would talk to me, tell me their stories and just see what we may be missing. I have only done it once, but it was eye-opening.
His name is Paul. He would not tell me his last name. He looks to be in his late 60’s, sandy brown hair turning gray, sort of short and slight. He carries a backpack and has, what can only be described as, a wary look, but he seems to be there every day. He certainly has been there every time I have been.
I first contacted him as we were walking into the main room, saying hello and introducing myself. Somewhat taken aback, he accepted my offered hand and said hello, telling me his name was Paul. Our conversation ended there that day, but I made it a point to wave or speak each time I saw him and he, sort of, warmed to me and would wave and speak.
Paul usually sat at a table on the Government Street side of the main room in an alcove like area open to the main room with a window to Government Street-the front of the library-and shelves of books on the other two sides.
One day, I happened to be looking for a book located in that section and after finding it, I asked Paul if he minded some company for a few minutes. He said that he didn’t so I sat down and started a conversation.
As he became more comfortable, we talked for a little while. This would lead to a couple of more conversations, thus the story I am relating.
Many of us, myself included, make snap judgments that people who are regulars at places like the library are homeless, or otherwise not productive members of society. At least as relates to Paul, we (I) could not have been more wrong.
Paul is 70 years old. He was originally from Racine, Wisconsin, and after graduating from high school, joined the Air Force. He ended up making the Air Force his career, spending 25 years. While in the Air Force, he got his college degree in Mechanical Engineering and, after completing college, the Air Force offered him a place in Officer Candidate School. Paul was already a Sergeant, and, by his own admission, it took some coaxing from a couple of his friends to seize the opportunity. He completed OCS and by the time he left the service he was a Major.
Paul said that he was the only one of his brothers and sisters, there were 3 of each, to complete college, but that they had done well for themselves. He was the youngest of the 7 and when we talked only one sister remained alive. He did not see her often-she was in a nursing home near Chicago suffering from dementia.
Paul had done two tours in Vietnam, one as an enlisted man and one as an officer. He said that since he was working in engineering related fields both times he was there, not much was different except the difference in receiving and giving orders.
One of his tours included the time of the Tet Offensive and he described it as horrible, but would not say much else, choosing to move on from those days. Overall, I got the impression that he enjoyed his time in the Air Force and felt that the military was a noble calling.
While in the Air Force, he met and married, Betty. They never had any children and she died from kidney failure in the mid-90’s. They had been married 27 years. Paul described her as an energetic red head who was up for almost anything. She especially liked fishing even though she was not particularly good at it, but laughingly he said that she was better than he. He said they fished every where they lived, but that their time in the northwest when they fly-fished was the best.
I asked how he ended up in Mobile and he said that after he got out of the Air Force, he and Betty wanted to move somewhere they had never lived, so they moved to New Orleans where he worked until he was 63. He had been offered a buy-out by his company and that, his Air Force retirement and Social Security provided him with a comfortable income, but he wanted to leave New Orleans since the memories of Betty’s death were attached. He laughed about that saying that he knew it was foolish, but it was just how he felt, so he decided to come to Mobile.
Paul had been to Mobile for work on many occasions and knew it was the place most like New Orleans, so he just felt comfortable.
When I asked about his coming to the library so regularly, he said it was one of his socialization venues. Paul said that having no family meant he could be a hermit-like person who stayed in the shadows or he could be out in the world.
Paul has a home, a shotgun house in the downtown area and a car, though he rarely drives, preferring to walk whenever possible, even in the rain on occasion.
He revealed that his backpack usually contained 8 to 10 bottles of water and 8 to 10 ham or chicken sandwiches and that while one of each was reserved for him, he gave the others away 3 or 4 days a week to people he had come to know and who could not provide for themselves.
Paul also volunteered at Wings of Life and the Waterfront Rescue Mission. Acknowledging that he was not particularly religious, he nonetheless felt that these two organizations offered hope and opportunity without enabling people’s addictions and laziness.
I asked if he was a sports fan in the sports mad area in which we live. Laughing, he said he was a Packers fan because who from Wisconsin wouldn’t be.
When I asked about telling this story, he asked me to wait for a while and let him think about it. I am writing it now, because I saw him just before Thanksgiving and he said he was moving to the Chicago area to be near his sister and her daughter. Paul said that it was time to return home. He said that he would be near Chicago, in Wisconsin.
As we shook hands for what I assumed would be the last time, he said, “For whatever it’s worth, tell the story.”
Well, I don’t know what it’s worth except that the old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover” applies in real life.

I am trying to decide if I want to try another interview like this. I will have to think about it.

ODD FEELING

Seven months ago my Mother died at the age of 92. While this, in and of itself, is not a surprise considering her age, the fact that she had survived cancer-an occurrence that took place in 1958—as well as a mild stroke several years prior to her death, the months leading up to this holiday season have been strange.
Obvious to anyone who has had a loved one die, there is sadness, a feeling of loss and a sort of disconnect that cannot be explained in mere words, but it is the little things that you don’t think about which get your attention.
I have, for going on 28 years, officiated tennis, primarily at the college level, but, also, the USTA Juniors, especially the multitude of tournaments that take place here in Mobile, where the largest municipal facility in the world, 60 courts, exists.
For the last seven or eight years, I have routinely called my Mother as I was leaving a college campus or the Mobile Tennis Center just to chat for a few minutes as I was making my way home. While the college season was over prior to her death, the juniors (and some adults) continued and on several occasions, as I was heading home, I picked up my cell phone and started to call her, only to realize that I could no longer do it. The feeling was just plain odd.
You would think that being a few weeks from 69 years old, I would be more together in dealing with death, but when it comes to the routine, seemingly small, things, I find myself feeling the strangeness of the missing person to be all the more impactful.
My Mother, Johnnie Fae, known to the family as Fonnie, was a force of nature. She was a small town school teacher, who wanted her children and all the children she taught to have big world ambitions and energy. She pushed many a person to take one step beyond where they thought they could go and thus do more than they imagined.
She was not short on opinions and did not mind sharing them, sometimes when they were not necessarily wanted, but everyone who knew her never doubted where she stood on matters ranging from personal conduct to politics and, as her son, I hope that we are all the better for her frankness.
This has wandered a touch, but I miss that calling capability and even though the calls were often short, it was important to us both. So to steal from the late, Paul “Bear” Bryant and his television commercial for Southern Bell, “Have you called your mother today, I wish I could call mine”.

Iron Bowl Week

 

It is that time of year. Alabama/Auburn game week: an event that reaches the zenith of the rivalry that is every day, every week, a lifetime event. From birth you are either Tide or Tiger, or sure there are some who claim to be neutral, who went to another school, or come from another part of the country, but those of us who grew up here know they are lying and are closet Tide or Tiger fans.

Growing up in Dadeville, Alabama, just 25 miles from Auburn, I knew that my Alabama allegiance was in the minority, but it mattered little. The rivalry was fun. The grown men in town would have great fun with it. They would send crying towels to the fans of the losing team, or, on occasion, a black funeral wreath would be found hanging on the door of someone’s workplace, but it ended there.

Today, it is more of a blood sport and there is something fundamentally wrong with that. This is not to say that “trash talking” and needling friends who are fans of the other team is out of bounds. Lord knows, I do love some good trash talking, but when property is trashed and people are killed, we may have gone just a touch too far. Note: in Mobile this week, one man killed another as a result of an argument about whether Alabama or Auburn was the better team—both lost.

The standing joke for many of us is my two favorite teams are: this is my point of reference—Alabama and whoever is playing Auburn. I am sure that many Auburn fans feel the same with the names switched.

I had occasion to be having drinks with a couple of friends here a year, or so, ago. One played at Alabama, the other at Auburn and we talked about the game and the passion. Both of them stated that they loved the game and the rivalry, but that proportion had been lost. One said that no brain surgery was being done and no lives saved on the field during the game and the other said, it drove him crazy to hear fans criticize the players since not any of the fans “passed a lick” during the game-the fans made no tackles, threw no blocks and were not involved in the play calling and had no idea about what was going on during play.

So, as we get closer to the game. Have fun, trash talk and maybe send a wreath, but don’t get in a fight or kill anyone-it will wreck both your weekends.

And, oh by the way, Roll Tide.

TALE OF TWO JOBS

I wrote about Pine Trees and the work that went with it, well this is another teenage work story.

Roy and Beth Lockett were friends of my parents and one of, the many, Lockett families in Dadeville.

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I got hired by Roy to work for Batson & Cook Construction, a national firm, where he was a project manager. This particular job was at the Wehadkee (sp?) Mills, in Talladega. This was a textile mill. Remember when textile mills were located in Alabama and all over the U.S.?

I was to be a common laborer involved in putting an addition to the dying operation by expanding the second floor of one building.

I was 16, but would learn later that I was supposed to have been 18 to work at this job due to its hazardous nature. Obviously, I survived, none the worse for wear. Additionally, and more importantly, I was making $1.60 per hour leading to a take home pay, not including overtime, of $53.33 per week (yes, I remember that exact amount).

Roy would pick me up at the house at 5:30 A.M. and we would drive to Talladega. The work was 7:00 to 3:30 with a half hour for lunch, usually 2, sometimes 3, bologna sandwiches and an apple. Water was the beverage, with occasional forays to the mill’s Coke machine.

I don’t remember most of the people I worked with, but I do remember the Cass brothers, Wilbert and Charles. Wilbert always had stories and he had a SS Impala. The Impala would lead to his missing a day’s work when the Talladega Police took umbrage at his driving through town at over 100 mph.

The work was labor—breaking concrete, digging footings (those holes filled with concrete and rebar which, in turn, hold up second floors, ceilings and roofs), helping the steel men tie rebar (reinforcement iron), pouring concrete, setting beams, removing roof materials and the like. It was hot and sweaty work, but I was making $1.60 an hour.

Early on I learned that a 3’x3’x3’ hole was damn big and that when you were standing in the hole digging it out the process of getting the dirt out would lead to dirt being in your hair, down your shirt and generally covering all of you. Also, squaring the hole is a great deal more difficult than it sounds. Smooth straight sides, done with a shovel, are as much art as science.

Once the concrete floors were removed from the old first floor, a process that introduced me to a jack-hammer and taught me how to not let it kill me, and once the footings were dug, rebar had to be placed and tied. This process involved tying big pieces of steel bar together in a square with smaller pieces of steel held together with pieces of wire as ties. Sounds easy enough, but most of the work is done while bent over at the waist and, if you are not possessed of good gloves, the little pieces of wire will cut your hands to shreds. Even at 16, being bent over at the waist for the better part of eight hours for a couple of days made me aware of how bad my back could hurt.

Once the rebar was in place, concrete was poured and finished. The pouring part was basic and, for me, involved pushing the wet concrete into places the finishers told me to. This involved back, arms and legs and was done without a break—had to be done while it was wet.

Adding the second floor involved removing the roof. The existing roof was of tar with creosote laced timbers (creosote was the nasty preservative that protected wood that was exposed to the weather). To accomplish this, we started work at sunrise in order to avoid, as much as possible, the heat of the day. There was no way to stay clean. The tar and creosote would get all over you and it stuck like glue and burned like you had rubbed pepper sauce all over you skin. The stuff was so toxic that some skin on my face turned black and peeled off.

I wore gray work pants and shirts, and for the two days it took to remove the roof, I was, seemingly, dressed in black when I left work.

Those of you from Dadeville, who are reading this, will understand what follows. I lived on a dead end street and people came to the back door. If there was a knock on the front door, we knew it was a stranger, or someone was lost. Anyway, since this was summer, my Mother would be home (she was a teacher) when I got home and she was looking out of the kitchen window when I got out of Roy’s truck. Yelling through the window, she told me to take my clothes off, down to my underwear, where I stood in the carport, turn them inside out and then come in. When I protested that someone might see, she said nobody is coming down the street, so “just do it”. My Mother used this term long before Nike. (Note: those of you who knew my Mother know this was not a negotiation).

Having undressed, I went in put the clothes in the washing machine and went immediately to shower. It would take two cycles to get the clothes clean and then another cycle with nothing in the washing machine to make sure the dirt was gone. I seemed to have survived the backyard undressing. I had to do this for two days-the humiliation.

The second floor was, more a less, a repeat of the concrete pouring on the first floor, except we had to build forms (wooden structures in the design of the floor) into which the concrete was poured.

This work lasted until the first week of August when I had to quit because two-a-day football practice started the next week.

Sometime in the late fall, after football season, I was hired by Roy to help with the cattle at his wife, Beth’s, family farm. This farm was down near the Montgomery area, actually not far from the Slapout Grocery. Yes, there is an area called Slapout, Alabama, and, at that time, there was a grocery store called the Slapout Grocery.

Beth’s family raised registered Brangus cattle. These are a cross between Angus and Brahman, so they are big and, a touch, ornery. The work to be done was to vaccinate and dip the cattle. I was to be paid $1.25 an hour.

Vaccination is obvious. Give shots to the cattle to protect them from disease. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? You should, however, think of this in terms of giving a shot to a 1200 pound two year old. The process was getting the cattle into an area where the head would be in a yoke-like device and then the shot was given in the hip area. My duties did not include the shot giving–no, I was involved in the “capture the head part”.

The construction work of the previous summer was child’s play compared to this and this part went on all day Saturday. I was exhausted, but had not been punctured by any horn, nor had I been crushed by any hoof.

After church on Sunday, we proceeded to the dipping phase. While less cumbersome than the vaccination process, it was way nastier. The dipping required moving the cattle down a chute into a tank which was filled with an oily substance containing something designed to kill fleas, mites, skin rashes and possibly the plague.

Getting the cattle into the tank was relatively easy, though they were not especially fond of walking down the slight decline. Then, with a rope for aid, you had to hold them in the tank for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute—it seemed like an hour. The bovines were not happy to have this liquid all over their bodies and would shake and thrash, thus sloshing this liquid all over those holding them.

After the “bath”, walking the cattle out of the tank was fine except, like a dog, they would shake as much of the substance off of their bodies as possible, thereby covering the person in charge of the particular bovine.

As I left that day, covered in whatever substance this was, I was assured that I would likely never have any cattle born mite or disease. To date, this has held true, including, no plague.

I know that many of my friends from Dadeville had similar experiences and we are richer for the experiences.

ILL-PLANNED ADVENTURE

During the summer of 1967, the summer after I graduated from high school, my friend, John Gittings, was a student at Auburn and was working at the Bank of Dadeville which was across the street from our shop, so he and I would see each other fairly often.

During that time, businesses, including the bank and courthouse, would close on Wednesday afternoon and would be open on Saturday morning. This would allow the farmers and timber people the opportunity to come into town and do business.

John came to the shop one day and asked if I was interested in canoeing the Tallapoosa River from the bridge on the Dudleyville road to Young’s Landing. He was going to get all day off on a Wednesday and so would I. It should be noted here that I had been in a canoe once and John had been in one, maybe two or three times. All of these occasions, as I recall, were just piddling around on Lake Martin.

In planning this trip, we made what can only be called a few major mistakes. The first was the distance to Young’s Landing—the actual distance was twice as far as we figured; the second, and equally major mistake, was calculating where we would hit the backwater of the lake and thus lose the current of the river as an aid.

While the Tallapoosa River is hardly Class III, or IV, water, it had some spots that were above our non-existent skill level.

We got Curtis Morgan, one of my Dad’s mechanics, to haul us and the canoe to our put-in point and drop us off. We came prepared with coolers full of drinks, water mostly, sandwiches and fruit.

As we launched, we were careful not to flip the canoe and finally figured out a good paddling rhythm. This took a fair amount of time and included some significant wandering back and forth across the river. With the current helping some, we were enjoying the July day. It would, of course, quickly heat up and while we had life vests, we were quickly down to swim suits and no vests.

Many who read this will say, in this day of enlightenment, “I hope you had sunscreen”, but making such a statement shows that you have forgotten, younger people never have learned, that people did not wear “sunscreen”, if anything you wore “suntan lotion”.

John and I had neither, we just sat in the canoe, shirtless, paddling and broiling. Occasional forays into the water provided our cooling.

As we approached the beginning of Horseshoe Bend Military Park, there were some shoals and at the head of these shoals, a series of reasonably sized, flat rocks. We stopped here to eat. The river was running low because there had been no significant rain in several weeks.

The shoal area, if memory serves (and it could be failing) had a slight drop that extended pretty much across the river, so John and I picked what looked like a reasonable path and shot through the opening at, what we believed to be, a breathtaking speed. We landed with a thump, the canoe caught on a rock, swung sideways, caught another rock about halfway down its length and dumped me and one cooler into the river. The water was shallow, so I climbed back into the canoe, pulled the cooler in and now one apple lighter, we were off.

As we passed the remnants of the old covered bridge-all that was left were the brick supports (the covered portion had fallen a few years earlier), we began to see turtles by the dozens sunning themselves on logs and rocks and we would see swirls under some of the overhanging limbs that told us that the falling insects had been gobbled up by fish in the cooler, shaded waters. We, also, saw the occasional water moccasin, but never had a close encounter.

At a point, all too soon, we came to the backwater of the river and the start of the impound part of Lake Martin. The help we had been getting from the river’s current just stopped and our locomotion depended on our rudimentary paddling skills.

It seemed that the day got exponentially hotter at this point and I know that we got slower. Shortly after dusk, we arrived at the “river bridge” (for the uninitiated, this is the bridge between Dadeville and Alexander City on Highway 280 that crosses Lake Martin).

We pulled to the shore below the old Lake Hill Restaurant (not to be confused with the restaurant building that now exists), pulled the canoe up the hill by moving from tree to tree, resting, securing the canoe and moving on (there were no steps down to the water and there was no walking path) and, once we got to the parking area, used the pay phone, called my Dad. He came to get us in his truck and home we went.

We were tired, sore and burned to International Harvester red.

John and I did not undertake any other canoe adventures, however, Harold Banks, a Dadeville native with whom John and I went to school, has since helped develop a canoe trail that includes this stretch of river. This trail is named for Harold.

I am sure that the canoe trail brings many hours of fun for people, but even money says that they are better prepared that John and I.