Saturday, December 27, 2008

More Old Photos

Another old photograph out of the jumble caught my eye. It was sepia tint of the Bartley family taken around the turn of the century. Typical of family portraits taken in those days, no one smiled. In fact, they seemed to almost scowl. Unlike today’s toothy poses, having your picture taken back then was apparently serious business. It must have been popular to try to look as if someone had just died.

My grandmother, the oldest of James and Martha Jane Bartley’s six children, stood prim and erect behind her stone-faced father. This 8x10 was a reproduction from a larger original that I had seen on a wall somewhere. I wondered…did the Bartley family still gaze somberly into someone's living room? Or had the oval mahogany and beveled glass that once framed their faces been consigned to some attic or garage somewhere.

I couldn’t give a name to all the faces but I knew my cousin Norma would know them all.

“Well, the one on the left behind Grandpa Bartley is Granny”, she said, referring to our grandmother, Roxie Thompson. “The little boy holding the horse is Uncle Hodge.”

“Look at that face," I said. "He looks like someone just licked all the red off his candy.”
“That’s Lillie beside Granny,” she said, ignoring the remark. “She died real young. I think your mother was named after her.”

My mother's name is Anna Lillie Thompson. I had not known where the Lillie came from until now. I wondered how old her namesake had been when she died and why she had died so young. Norma said she didn’t know.

Left to right from Lillie was Bonnie, the spunky one, and Grace, whom I remembered as a stately woman who seemed to typify her name. “Granny Bartley” held little “Flo”, the youngest, on her lap. I had seen “aunt Flo” (short for Florence?) once when I was six years old. I remembered only that she lived in Michigan and owned a television. I had never met Uncle Hodge.

This box of pictures had taken the better part of my afternoon. There were bills to pay and e-mails to answer. I hefted the plastic bin back onto the shelf and resumed my work, thinking how like wind-driven seeds we all are. We start off together, hatchlings and parents, on the same path. Then the winds of circumstance catch us and carry us off to new ground where we leave our imprint on places and people and thereby alter the cosmos. Is this dispersal of our essence part of the master plan? Are we just part of the clockwork? It comes to mind that the first funeral I attended was that of the patriarch of this old photograph, Grandpa James Bartley, in Rose Hill, VA. I can still see him, pale and waxen in his casket, his trademark thick mustache, now gray, his most dominant feature, even in repose. I remember being frightened and, at the same time, intrigued by the spectacle of death. I remember staring at the old man's mustache and wondering why no other men in the room had one.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our family snapshots are myriad. But, alas, we have been poor stewards of them. Sure, a few are in photo albums. But most of them (my guess is 600 or more) lie unceremoniously crammed into a large, blue Tupperware box. And there they sit, a photo-chronological scramble, frozen moments in time, a life’s cast of characters tossed in a tumble like old dolls in a box.

I know better than to go near this crypt. But the box was off its perch on the office shelf last night, and needed putting up. Bad move. I began picking through its contents and before I knew it, the inert gas of nostalgia was in my nostrils, controlling my brain.

There were the “slide” years. I took transparencies in the early 70’s. Soon, I tired of holding these up to the ceiling light. The projector broke years ago. Then there were the black and white years. In the mid to late 70’s I worked for newspapers and developed my own. I was never without the Nikkormat 35 mm or the big Bronica SLR large format. (what ever happened to that camera?). I always had an unlimited supply of Tri-X 400 ASA b&w on hand. Those were the days before digital cameras and auto settings when I could still think in F-stops and shutter speeds.

Most numerous were the color photographs of the kids growing up. But what kept me in brain freeze mode the longest were the old monochromes and sepias I inherited after my father died.

I saw an oval picture of my grandmother. She was in her 20’s and a very pretty woman. Her hair was in a bun and her eyes were clear and wide. She had a slight smile that rivaled the Mona Lisa’s for mystery. She was newly married, I suspect to a man she barely knew. Her expression said she was in a new place where she was not entirely comfortable and knew a secret about her feelings she would not tell.

Growing up, I often stayed with her for weeks at a time. I watched her lug bushels of apples from a dark cellar, peel each one and then cook them into apple butter in a large iron pot. One day I went with her to feed chickens and discovered that one of the birds was doomed. She gripped the unsuspecting hen and with a quick cranking motion of her bony hand, broke its neck. This violence from such a sweet lady seemed incongruous but somehow was normal on the farm. She cut off the chicken’s head with a butcher knife. I watched the headless fowl attempt to stand until, in a few seconds, it went limp. We called my grandmother “Granny”.

Another unframed snapshot was that of my grandfather on Mother’s side. He sat, unsmiling, dressed in his farmer overalls, in a rocking chair on the front porch. “Po”, as we called him, was not a religious man. But he knew his bible, even though he would be the first to admit to not living by its principles. I think it was his refusal to swallow the pabulum of the preachers that later caused most of his children to search for truth. One day, when I was 9 years old, let me tag along with him on the farm. He sharpened a hatchet on a foot-powered grindstone. Then he led me into a thicket of cedar saplings and selected just the right one. He cut it down and shaped it into a very functional bow. He notched it, strung it and taught me how to shoot it. I never forgot that. When my son was nine years old, I repeated the ritual, all the while, thinking of the man we called “Po” who died when I was 11.

Other old photos surfaced like nuggets in a miner's pan. One was a 1939 picture of my mother and father, young and in love. Dad was rakishly handsome and my mother was, as kids today say, a real hottie. It was the pre-war days of Benny Goodman swing and jitterbug. He was cutting timber and she, well, she lived near the stand of trees. I stared at the picture a long time, wondering what it would have been like to know them and be the same age. Would we hang out? Or would they think we were stuffy and un-cool.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dog Loser Knob

We sat, perched atop a slab of solid quartz, Dan Wax and I, munching on granola and trail mix, drinking in the in the panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sky was cloudless and deep blue and the visibility was forever. By noon, the sun was a bright yellow disc high in the Southwestern sky. “The Shining Rock”, an outcropping of white quartz, formed the face of one of the mountain peaks in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. The irregular, jagged shape of the boulders made them easy to climb and the view from the summit was – there’s no other word - breathtaking. To the Northwest was Cold Mountain. I am told it was the basis of a book and later a movie. To the South was the Blue Ridge Parkway where cars moved along like ants in a conga line. The Parkway had been cut across the very top of the Appalachian mountain ridges and paved by CCP workers in the Great Depression era. From our perch we could see a good 30 mile stretch of the serpentine two-lane blacktop road. Farther off in the valley, lay the mountain town of Greenville with it’s sister city, Spartanburg.
We finished off our high-energy lunch with a last swig from our canteens and then began the descent to our campsite below. We had chosen a flat area beside the trail to set up our three-man tent which we shared. We had learned by experience that the two-man tents were for very small men. When we reached our campsite, we looked at our watches and calculated that we had about three hours of daylight left. We began combing a nearby copse of trees for dead limbs and dry brush. October has a fickle thermostat, exaggerated by the mountains. We had shed our wool shirts and were down to our tee shirts. This was work! It would have been easier to take Dan’s hatchet and chop down a tree for our campfire that night. But we didn’t do that for two reasons: (1) All the instructions for wilderness camping say to leave growing things alone. Don’t even pick the flowers! (2) Starting a fire with green firewood is next to impossible. But before long, we had a large stash of small limbs and some large logs for later when the fire was big enough.
As the sun went down, so did the temperature, dropping 30 degrees in one hour. Campfires warm the side of your body that is facing the blaze. If you are facing it, your front is toasty warm while your back freezes. So, we alternated sides like human rotisseries, to stay warm.
“This must be what it’s like on the surface of the moon”, I said, taking another swig of our “medicinal purposes” brandy.

We dragged a large log and rolled it into our fire. Sparks rose 50 feet into the night and we worried we would set our tent ablaze, but our fears were unfounded. We drank hot chocolate and waited for our propane stoves to cook dehydrated potatoes and dehydrated beef stroganoff. We talked until our fire dwindled to brightly glowing embers and decided it was time for bed.

The moon, in its waning phase, was just beginning to make its debut and the stars, having no competition, appeared as tiny spotlights of varying sizes against a black velvet curtain. We could pick out Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two constellations that shared ownership of the North Star, and Orion was barely visible on the southern horizon. Braving the sub-freezing temperatures we quickly stripped down to our underwear and crawled into our sleeping bags and were warm within minutes. This was our second night of undisturbed by a ringing telephone or any sound not produced by nature. I was getting used to it and I imagined what it would be like to live this way, in the wild, relying only on one’s skills as a hunter for food and just living off the land. Somewhere in mid-thought the daydream became a night dream and I drifted into unconsciousness. We slept the peaceful sleep of far away and out of reach

The next morning we awoke to 15 degrees and convinced ourselves against our will to exit the comfort of our cocoons and put on our stiff jeans for another day. Dan had had the bright idea to put his clothes inside his sleeping bag but he didn’t share it with me, so my dressing was considerably more uncomfortable than his.

Dog Loser Knob was so named because of a grove of dwarf magnolias that grew on the top of this wind-swept peak. The tops of the trees formed a thick canopy maze. I wondered… Who had named this place? Had some cartographer lost his dog up here? On the south end of the grove was a large flat grassy area, which made the perfect camping spot for our final night in the woods. We pitched our tent and gathered firewood again. In the last hour of daylight, our fire ablaze, we ate a freeze dried something that tasted like hamburger helper. It was another crystal clear night.

The next morning, our last day in the wilderness, we dismantled our tent, strapped on our noticeably lighter backpacks and headed down the trail and back to civilization. I have heard it said that deprivation is the soul of appreciation. After four days of playing Daniel Boone, a hot shower and a soft, comfortable bed never felt so good. But a part of me still yearns for the quiet, open air. I would visit Shining Rock two more times, once with my son when he was 16 and again with my daughter when she was 12. But I have not, at least to this point, been back to Dog Loser Knob.

Spear Fishing near Shining Rock

The Shining Rock, located in the heart of North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness, is aptly named. It is a solid outcropping of white quartz about the size of a 10-story apartment building. 10 miles below its summit, I blinked awake and zipped open our tent flap. Darkness had given way to a pale but distinguishable dawn. The sun was painting the tops of the pines a light pink as Dan Wax and I stepped outside and shrugged into our Patagonia jackets. Our breath made clouds in the air as we talked about breakfast. Something about all of this made us both ravenously hungry.

We had pitched our tents beside a small creek the night before and now we ambled over to take a daytime look. To our amazement, we saw at least a dozen of what appeared to be to us (no fishermen we) rainbow trout! They had congregated in a shallow pool just past our boot tops. The thought occurred to us that if we could but catch one of these fish, it would make an excellent meal. But neither of us knew how to go about it. But hadn’t we seen on television how that you could lash a knife to the end of a stick and make a spear out of it? Yes! That would be quite easy. Dan unsheathed his “survival” knife while I looked for some string with which to lash the knife to the end of my walking stick. We deemed it a spear when the knife refused to wiggle when wedged into the bark of a pine tree. We were ready.

Dan was the first to try. He stood over the slowly wiggling trout and picked one out of the bunch to impale. He was actually quite surprised when he thrust the homemade lance into the water and did not get one. Undaunted, he tried again… and again and again. Remarkably, the trout did not offer to leave their spot. They simply darted to the side as the blade entered the water.

We later concluded that one problem with this type of fishing is the phenomenon of refraction. When thrust into crystal clear water, the spear seemed to bend off at a slightly different angle. When it was my turn I could have sworn the knife tip was going right for the gills! But then it veered 15 degrees to the right. What I lacked in skill I tried to make up with enthusiasm. But to no avail. The fish would live another day.

We laughed at ourselves as we undid the lashings on our homemade spear. We cooked grits and oatmeal over our small propane stoves.

As we ascended the trail, the creek shrank to a brook and then became a runnel with small waterfalls that tumbled between mossy boulders. This portion of the trail was really a gorge which time and erosion had etched. The footpath we followed veered in avoidance of giant fallen trees, the victims of some ancient windstorm. It seemed like some mysterious netherworld from the pages of a fantasy book, both foreboding and inviting. The trail steepened. We began to climb, one foot in front of the other, a slow, ascending plod, until we finally broke out into bright sunshine and an azure sky. We had reached the “bald”.

In the North Carolina Mountains, the peaks are often so windswept that trees do not grow on the very tops. Instead, one encounters a grassy lea that looks to be a natural pasture. These make excellent camping grounds.

The midday sun had coaxed us out of our jackets and these we tied onto our backpacks. We checked our maps to be sure, but there was no mistaking our destination. Shining Rock lay approximately three miles by footpath from bald on which we stood. From this angle, it was massive, snow white crags framed by dark green stands of pine. Dan and I drank in the view, munching on trail mix, mentally preparing our tired legs for the last three miles. Tonight we would sleep on Dog Loser Knob.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Shining Rock, Dog Loser Knob

This crisp weather makes me want to go backpacking again. It's been a while, but you never forget your first time.... four days of "roughing it" in the North Carolina's Shining Rock Wilderness Circa 1982.
Backpacking, as the term implies, requires that you carry on your back everything that you will eat and wear for the duration of your trip.
It's always good to go with someone experienced. Dan Wax of Columbia, SC had gone once, the year before, on a portion of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. To hear him tell it, he nearly died of thirst. He had made the mistake of not considering where they would get drinking water. There apparently was none on the portion of the trail they chose to walk. But Dan's negative experience had not dampened his zeal for the sport (is it a sport?) and I was happy to follow his lead.
First stop: "The Great Outdoors”, a shop specializing in rental hiking gear like backpacks, sleeping bags, etc. to people like us who didn’t want to spend a thousand bucks but still wanted quality gear. We paid Ten bucks each for a Kelty backpack, $15.00 each for a North Face minus 30 degree sleeping bag and we invested another $50 or so in such things as compasses, trail maps, cooking gear and food.

The experts at the “Great Outdoors” said they had two words for us…. “pack light”. We took lots of light weight dried foods like powdered soups, grits and powdered potatoes. Cooking oil was a must and could be mixed with corn meal and water to make hoecakes, always a favorite around any campfire!

We parked just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and began to “saddle up”. With our 60-pound packs strapped to our backs, Dan and I resembled top heavy biped pack mules. Our sleeping bags topped the packs and the entire ensemble exceeded our height by around 14 inches. We were to discover that balance was key. Lean too far over and you go down. My pack was heavier because I carried the 6-pound tent.

With the fading sun an orange ball behind us in a cloudless sky, we trudged toward the Art Loeb trailhead. The detailed topical maps we had purchased that morning showed every little dip and rise in the mountainous terrain. We reckoned our first campsite was about three miles away near a creek.

This was before the days of GPS. We found out where we were and figured out where we were going by first spotting a landmark on the map, then finding it on the horizon. Then we placed the flat compass on the map and pointed it at the landmark. That done, it was a simple matter of turning our body with the map until we were oriented and walking. It seemed to work! But these were not just woods. This was a big place with miles and miles of isolated country. We had both heard the stories of campers who had entered and were never heard from again.

We walked two miles along a mountain stream that was home to rainbow trout over a foot long. Suddenly we came upon a grassy clearing and knew without consulting the map that this was our campsite. We assembled our tent in the thickening darkness. Night sounds were strange. Owls whooed and wind whistled through the branches of the trees directly above us. The down sleeping bags were cozy warm within 15 minutes and we slept soundly despite the fact that the temperature outside was in the low 30’s.

The next morning we awoke to a crisp blue sky and we could see our breath as we worked to strike our tent. We had not built a fire the night before but we would this night. But ahead of us now lay 10 more miles of the Art Loeb Trail and the summits of Dog Loser Knob Shining Rock Mountain. The names of these places on the map were intriguing and beckoning. “Dog Loser Knob”. I couldn’t wait to see this place. – to be continued

Friday, December 12, 2008

Something Old, Something Blue

Sometimes on warm summer evenings I think of her and wonder whatever became of her. When I was 16 she was all I ever wanted. For some reason, at that age, I didn't realize that she wasn’t much to look at. Compared to others I would own later, she was downright ugly. But at the time, all that mattered to me was that she was mine and she took me where I wanted to go…. most of the time, anyway.
She was a blue 1953 Chevrolet six cylinder straight drive four-door sedan. At least most of her was blue. The gray primer spots on the passenger side door and right rear fender only served to give her more character. Important note: the radio worked fine and picked up WKIN, the only rock and roll station around. In those days, AM was king. FM stations played elevator music with no commercials and nobody (at least nobody I knew) listened to FM radio.

I bought the car from my father, who owned a small used car lot near the Tennessee-Virginia border. A customer had traded the Chevy in for a newer model Plymouth station wagon. The bulbous blue hulk was not perfect, but the price was right. I could have it for what Dad had in it. I handed him my life savings. The wad of bills amounted to $175, and he made the title out to me.

There was a giant rip in the driver’s seat. I fixed that with a $5.00 nylon slip-on cover. The floorboard holes I covered with plywood and rubber floor mats. After rubbing every speck of grime from the paint, I hooked up the wet-dry vacuum and removed 10 years of accumulation from her insides. The sun was fading and she was as clean as I could get her that day. So it was time to go cruising -- she with a cloud of blue smoke belching from her tailpipe and I with my arm out the window and my wrist draped stylishly over the steering wheel.

If there had been a contest in the 1960s to gauge the “cruisability” of small American towns, Kingsport, Tennessee would have scored high on the list. Broad Street was a half-mile long with circles at each end. It had four lanes and five stoplights. The south end had a U-turn at the old train station and the north end terminated at “Church Circle”, so called because of the five large brick churches that ringed the top of the circumference.

And so, on a warm summer evening in 1964, with the moon a muted spotlight and three bucks in my pocket, I nosed the ’53 Chevy into a right turn off Center Street and joined the sluggish line of traffic for the first time as a driver of my own. With the windows down and the radio up, Jake Pyle and I traversed the half-mile stretch again and again, listening to the Dick Biondi show on WLS Radio in Chicago. Another station we were able to pickup after dark was “WOWO” in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Beatles were all the rage then. That, and what we would now call "golden oldies". WKIN signed off with the Star Spangled Banner at sundown, yielding the higher watt stations.

Elbows out our windows, Jake and I cruised for hours, watching in silent wonder the occasional “Chinese fire drills”. These were performed with great precision by cars with six or more occupants. At one stop light, the doors of a jet black 1957 Chevy flew open at and a scramble of teens leaped out, circled the car, and reentered on cue, slamming the doors as the light changed. The driver “burned rubber” and the car lurched forward 40 feet or so before slowing for the next stoplight.

“Showin’ off,” said Jake.

“Yeah…Daddy’s car goes real fast, “ I said, my envy transparent.

The summer of 1964 ended and my senior year in high school began. “The Blue Bomb ferried me to school faithfully that year. There were the occasional breakdowns so I learned to be a mechanic of sorts. I at least knew how to change dead spark plugs, replace burnt rotor buttons and cracked distributor caps. I knew how to coast off hills and pop the clutch to start the engine when the six-volt battery failed me. I carried a case of oil in the trunk and with every fill-up, replaced the quart that had leaked out of the motor housing or blown out the tail pipe.

In the years that have followed, I have owned many cars - new ones, used ones, big ones, small ones -- but all of them were just cars that took me where I drove them. None stay in my memory like that old blue Chevy. It was an automobile.

Monday, December 01, 2008


My little girl visited last week. She is 24 years old now.... all grown up and belongs to someone else. But she is still my little girl.

I came across this scrap of paper today. It's a note I wrote to her teacher when she was in junior high school. But it still describes her:

Dear Ms. Walsh:

Your note asking us to describe our daughter Katie was received and we are happy to include these observations.
Katie loves school and has a strong desire to excell. She agonizes over a C and wants to make the highest mark possible. She will be a diligent student.
Katie is:
* Quiet … until you get to know her
* Orderly (organized her crayons by hue and length at age three)
* Reluctant to speak up when treated unfairly
* Keeps negative emotions to herself (will NOT let you see her cry)
* Motivated by challenges
* Frustrated and anxious if challenges are beyond her grasp but won’t admit it
* Sensitive
* Responsible
* Fun loving
* Loyal to her friends
* A lover of routine and slow to take chances
* Witty (sometimes too much)
* Pleasant company if in a good mood
* Able to get ANYTHING right if given a second chance
* Always taking up for the underdog
* A deep thinker, very religious.
* A hard worker most of the time
Katie’s strengths are her desire to excel and succeed. She is mature for her age and focused on her goals.
Thank you for asking us to share these observations with you. I sincerely hope they are useful.

This morning was December 1. I folded my arms against the morning chill and watched her taillights disappear around the corner at the end of our street. It occured to me that we know each other from different perspectives. To her, I have always been an adult. But I, on the other hand, have seen her metamorphose from a small, wide-eyed toddler to a beautiful bride and now a young homemaker. Her knowledge of me is linear and constant while mine of her is kaleidoscopic and multi-dimensional.

And so it goes. I think I got the best end of this deal.