family


Note: This site has long been too dormant and been dormant too long. I may change that or I may not not. But going on week seven cooped out with  the COVID-19 emergency, I’ve started wondering what I want to do with the rest of my life. And as a result I’ve been pounding keyboards with some of the stuff in my head — most of which gets deleted. Writing has always been a passion and equally a pain. It’s something I know I am good at, but for too often don’t have the patience. Few stories flow from me. They have to be dragged out, and then endure ridiculous tinkering. But more than a year after my last post, I posted to Facebook this little window into a few weeks of one childhood summer that I banged out relatively effortlessly a cou0ple early mornings ago, and definitely wanted to port it here to live and perhaps to breathe a breath of life into this comatose old blog rather than just leave it to disappear from  a social media platform. Anyway, here it is…

It was the early 1970s. I was at my grandmother’s house in Carbon Hill, Alabama, for a part of the summer. Just me and her. I was six. Maybe seven. Carbon Hill is a small town in the northwestern part of the state, outside of the larger town of Jasper, which I read once had the distinction once of being the top coal producer in the entire world. Grandma had a dusty little wooden house with a coal-burning stove in the kitchen that sat near the the crossroads of two strips of asphalt.

The nearest building was across one of the roads that had once housed her flower and gift shop shop, but now stood empty. The next nearest was the small church down one the other road aways, at which my grandma used to teach Sunday school in a damp dirt-floored basement underneath the pulpit. During a different summer visit, I sat in that basement with my cousins and Grandma going on with some story about David, transfixed at a large hornet might have been the size of my eyeball that flew to a s midair stop and hovered so beautifully in the open basement doorway. I couldn’t decide if the hornet was afraid to come in or was just taking its time figuring out which one of us it was going to sting, until finally grandma got fed up with me staring at it dumbstruck and slammed the door shut.

The nearest neighbor was my great aunt Nellie up a nearby dirt road who I visited even though Grandma didn’t seem to keen on it. Aunt Nellie was sweet and gave me Milky Way candy bars and told me to mind her sister Ola and that she loved and missed Lyndell. That confused me at first because everyone who knew my mom called her Casey, which is how I learned the difference between birth names and stage names.

The room I slept in was in the rear of the house near the screened-in back porch. It had wood paneling and a ceiling fan in the center and bare floors and a large down bed with down pillows and a down comforter all positioned at an angle that when you’d fall in it would almost fully swallow you up. The bedding gave the room a deep, dense, and absolutely wondrous musty smell that has never left my nose, nor will I ever hope the day comes when it does.

Above the room’s ceiling and under the roof in one of the corners was a beehive so very large and active that you could hear endless droning of its workers day or night. So loud was it that often it seemed they were either in the room or on the verge of breaking through, but I never was freaked out by it. For that I can thank my best friend back in Van Nuys who was allergic and would run crying a mile like a baby in the opposite direction of where a single honeybee minding its own business might be. His embarrassing tantrums were a great lesson in how not to act around bees, most of which I’d encountered in my life had much better things to do than sting you. In fact, the incessant buzzing coupled to that thick aroma would often conspire to lull me off to sleep even when swaddled almost to suffocation in the humid-hot nights.

To the west of the house was a creek (which grandma pronounced “crick”) full of crawdads and the occasional cottonmouth. Behind the house was a chicken coop, and beyond that were towering sunflowers and corn stalks as far as I could see. There were also masses of beans growing somewhere, but their location I don’t recall. I only know they existed because of the many evenings spent shelling bushels of them on the front porch with grandma, done so under a bare bulb porch light that drew skies full of noisy flying things from the next county. Under the light stood a large bowl of water, and in the mornings it would be full of a fair percentage of those winged creatures who had the misfortune to land in it.

As a child of six or seven what terrified me weren’t the bees or the bugs or the critters in the crick. I became petrified by the black panthers I’d overhear grandma talking about on the phone and how there was no stopping them and they were coming to get all of us. I had no idea at the time or for years to come that she was frightened by the militant activist group so often in the news of the day. From my Jungle Book mentality all I figured she was talking about was a legion of bloodthirsty Bagheeras lurking out there somewhere in the darkness.

And damned if on one of those steam-soaked nights when something made a noise louder than the beehive and startled me from sleep, instead of my room the following morning, Grandma found me sprawled out on the backporch couch, garden hoe gripped tight in my hands from the vigil I’d stood in the dark, guarding over the house and the hens and beyond it the impenetrable sea of sunflowers and corn, where every whisper of the wind and sway of a stalk was a deadly black panther to which I’d defiantly stomp my weapon to keep them at bay and away from my grandma.

When she woke me frowning at my location, I told her what I had been keeping watch for, and Grandma gave me a sideways look stared out into the field and walked back into the kitchen wondering aloud where I’d gotten such a silly idea like that.

So I did it: I ordered a new toy. No, not a Harley-Davidson. Not a fully restored 1965 Mustang. Not a sky-dive or a 130-pound Hungarian Komondor (google it for some awesome).

Nah. I went and bought me an E-bike (actually us; one for me, one for Susan), though it can’t be considered an impulse purchase so much as a convergence of events: the right product finally coming along at the right price from what appears to be the right company.

See I’ve been eyeing E-bikes going back more than 12 years, but I always found reasons to run away from such a commitment, including but not limited to:

1) Financial: They cost too damn much
2) Ego: Up until a few years ago I was in my riding prime logging 6,000 miles per year on a single-speed bike and didn’t need any type of energized assistance thankyouverymuch.

Then a few weeks ago, a Facebook friend and really cool biking dude named Joe Anthony posted a link to a Seattle-based company called Rad Power Bikes and I clicked on over and really liked what I saw. I mean REEEALLY liked. The company seemed innovative and proactive and straight-forward and it reflected in their product line, which for all intents and purposes was comparatively affordable and well-designed.

Let me introduce you to the truly rad badass and beefalicious RadRover.

In addition there were sa-weeet incentives taking affordability to the next level such as a multi-bike discount and free shipping.

I was almost all set, but first I had to have a sit down with my ego, which was all “To hell with E-bikes! You’ve got plenty of miles left in them legs!”

That was not a lie, but more correctly is my present physiological reality, borne from getting past the police academy as I did at my already advanced age to get my present job. The cumulative result of countlessly hauling myself over over six-foot walls and fences, trips up and down the infamous Nike Hill, hours of defensive tactics, and miles and miles of laps around the track have left me with some ongiong lower back/sciatic issues. And on those few times since that I’ve mounted my trusty two-wheelers — even for relatively short rides — more than not there’d be some nagging and lingering aches, pains, leg numbness, et cetera.

With those things making it tough to get motivated, I ultimately told my ego to shut the funk up and that if it was time to bring in a battery back-up to get me away from the frustration of not being able to get back in the saddle, so be it. My ego was all “Whatevs loser.” And I was all “Fine.” And my ego was all “Fine!” Which is fine.

Next up, of course I had to pitch it to my better half. When you’re the type of austere person who happily motors around in an almost 22-year-old truck, and spends time trying to fix $15 box fans that crap out after 10 years of use, it can come as a bit of a shock when suddenly I start wanting to throw thousands of dollars at the internet.

So at her burfdae dinner last weekend, I broached the subject of us getting not one E-bike, but his-and-hers type burfdae giftsesses, and she A) didn’t laugh me out the restaurant, or B) slam her foot down on the floor in total rejection.

Her eyes did go wide at the estimate cost-outlay, but I think the idea appealed to her because while she’s enjoyed biking in the past, she’s no fan of hills or of trying to keep up with me (though I would argue that’s probably easier to do now that AARP and Forest Lawn are contacting me on a regular basis). Being able to bike together on a more level playing field would instantly increase opportunities to get outdoors and go roll around town exploring together, which is something both of us miss.

This morning, I had her look over the models and she decided the RadCity Step-Thru (also pictured) was the one for her so I ordered them up from the website (www.radpowerbikes.com) and barely hesitated in clicking the submit button. Delivery is estimated at 5-7 business days. So we might be out on the road on or around Easter Sunday!

Lastly, I want to give a shout out to Joe who I mentioned up top. In the ordering process the company obligatorily asked how I’d come to hear of them. I started to select Facebook from the drop-down menu options, but no offense Mr. Zuckerborg, I really don’t like giving your company credit for anything accept the further decline of civilization, so instead I chose “Referred by a friend.” That of course prompted a request for the friend’s name,” which I readily entered. I hope it benefits him in some way, and by that same token should this lengthy diatribe ultimately find you ordering up your own Rad Power bike, maybe you could do the same for me.

In the end, the bikes are going to be all the reward I need. I’m totes excited to find myself thinking something I haven’t in a long time: “I can’t wait to get on a bike and ride!”

In the months of 1989 leading up to the birth of my daughter things were not at all great financially or emotionally, but at the time we had a relatively sweet deal managing the 20-unit Van Nuys apartment building in which we were living in exchange for free rent on the two-bedroom we occupied.

Not long after she was born in September of that year it was decided that we would relocate to manage a building in Burbank, almost triple the number of units at only about half-off the rent, in part because a friend of my then-wife’s lived in the building and encouraged her to take the opportunity. There were pluses: it was in a better neighborhood; a newer building with nicer amenities. But in the end it increased the stretch on our finances and our already rocky relationship to the breaking point and I ended up moving out in January of 1990.

After all this time, my biggest regret of that whole inevitable failure as a man and a husband and a father? Leaving behind the stereo I’d inherited from my mother when I moved out on my own in 1985. Mind you, it was nothing fancy. Made by Admiral, it was called the Solid State Sterophonic High-Fidelty system, and without getting too overly sentimental, it played aaaaaall the music across the first 21 years of my life. Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Nat King Cole, Henry Mancini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mendelsohn, Dvorak, Fleetwood Mac, Vicki Sue Robinson, The Beatles, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, countless Broadway soundtracks, Louis Prima, Kansas, Journey, Queen, and on and on and on.

What happened was I had at some point in my early independence I upgraded to a Marantz system and thus unceremoniously relegated my mom’s to the garage storage compartment where it sat throughout the duration of meeting my future ex-wife, moving in with her, getting married, getting pregnant, et cetera. Then when it came time for that move to Burbank, I couldn’t find the key to the storage compartment’s lock and just said to hell with it and left it behind.

Compounded by my mom’s disappointment that I didn’t bring it back to her when I quit using it, my abandonment of it has bothered me ever since, up to and including this past weekend, when it disturbed me that we didn’t have a functioning phonograph with which to play my Nat King Cole Christmas album this season. That in turn triggered the thought of the number of Christmases it spun on the able Admiral and so of course in this day and age I googled “Admiral High-Fidelty Stereo System,” and wouldn’t you know? BOOM. In full jaw-drop, I found one available on eBay, looking pretty much in a similar well-worn condition that my mom’s was when I banished it to the garage:

s-l1600

It should be no surprise seeing that picture auto-triggered some verklemptification.

According to the Indiana seller’s description everything works but the record player, which is in need of a needle. The asking price is a prohibitive $329.99, especially considering I ordered a suitcase style self-contained stereo phonograph from Wayfair for $70 that should arrive by Friday.

But I’d be a liar if I denied putting this old lady on my Watchlist. And you really shouldn’t be too surprised if I end up putting in a low ball offer as we get near the end of the 27 days left at auction.

Well, it is official. I’m a landowner. Last January when my Uncle Doug died I was informed that in his will he bequeathed to me property he owned in Walker County, Alabama. Nine months later, the legal process is complete and I am now sole titleholder to 15 reportedly well-timbered and entirely undeveloped acres, replete with a creek known as Sims Branch (named after my grandmother’s parents) running through it, pictured approximately as shown below via Google Maps.

mine

What makes the gift even more special than being deemed worthy of it by my uncle — who was pretty much one of a very few adult males who demonstrated any kind of regard or concern for me during my childhood — is the fact that this particular plot of land is where my grandmother lived and where I stayed with her when I’d visit as a child.

Her house is long gone now. It was sold years back and its buyers jacked it up off its foundation and moved it to an unknown location. Though I last was inside when I was 7 years old, I can easily recall its layout… and lots of memories.

It’s an interesting sensation to own land that’s been in my family for quite some time, even if its far away and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I certainly hope to stand upon it sooner rather than later, but who knows. If this life-long experiment as a Los Angeles native ever craps out, odds are this is where you might be able to find me. Either in a log cabin, a double-wide, or a recreation of my grandma’s home constructed from memory.

 

Part of our morning routine: Pumpkin, Ranger, Patchy, The Jig, and Pepper nomming in their regular spots. Not shown: Bink, who prefers to dine upstairs rather than mix with the proletariat. Also not shown: The elaborately choreographed pre-nom dance that happens with everyone eventually winding up where they’re supposed to be.

My uncle Doug died. My middle name comes from him, my mom told me when I was a boy, and thus he became my favorite way back then simply because of that similarity.

Apparently when his body was discovered he’d been dead for around three days.

The last times I saw him in person was 1987 for my grandma’s funeral, and a couple years before that solemn occasion when I took a train trip all around the country: LA to New Orleans to Washington DC to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco and back to LA. During that epic tour I spent some times in Tennessee and Alabama visiting relatives and seeing the sights. One stop along the way was a visit to the town of Jasper, Alabama, near to where he lived and I met up with him and his wife Jeanne (who passed a few years ago; that’s the three of us pictured below during that stay).

uncledoug

Uncle Doug, me, and Aunt Jeanne. Somewhere in Alabama. Sometime in December 1985.

We had dinner together at the hotel the second night I was there. The next morning we met up and I went for a ride with him around Carbon Hill, the family hometown, and I got reacquainted with those environs I’d last visited for a section of summer spent with my grandma back when I was seven.

When we said our goodbyes we shook hands. In his was $100 that he placed into mine. I balked. He insisted. “You’ve go a long trip left. Just in case something happens,” he said

Uncle Doug was always gruff with me the few times we’d spoken on the phone over the course of my life. The conversations were awkward during mostly difficult low times of my life where he’d call most likely at my mother’s behest and do his best to counsel me on the right mindset and actions to take. I did my best to listen.

And that was pretty much the extent of our relationship.

The relationship between him and my mom, took a frustrating turn around 2003 when my mother moved back there to reconnect with the home turf she’d left for California as a young lady and to help him and Jean with various things. Instead things ended up with nasty words, accusations and angry feelings exchanged. And my mom, realizing why she’d left Alabama in the first place, came back to Los Angeles with the door firmly shut on the south at-large and her brother. The feeling was mutual, I’d guess.

So it is that the last 10 years of uncle Doug’s life, I’d never said a word to him. My mom may have sent flowers in both our names when Jeanne died, but that was her doing.

When my mom called me this last weekend with the news of his passing, it took me a day or so to get choked up, and even then it felt kind of forced. Maybe because we’d never been that close. Maybe because the way my schedule is, I didn’t have time to grieve much less attend any services that might be planned. Even when she called back to say I was named in his trust to receive 15 acres of what she called well-timbered land in Walker County, Alabama, replete with a creek running through it, I greeted that news clinically and wondered why me?

But then on my way to training yesterday afternoon, I was transitioning from the 101 to the eastbound 60 and I thought about old pictures I have stored away in an album somewhere. Of him and me when I was a couple three years old standing next to his super sweet 1966 Mustang Fastback. I’m not sure why that image and why then, but the waterworks just came on hard, and for the next few miles I found it so utterly depressing that in my entire life, my connection with my favorite uncle consisted mostly of a few pictures and uncomfortable phone calls. Maybe the feeling was mutual when he was alive.

Well, I am sorry, uncle Doug. I am so very sorry.

One of these days I’ll beat it down to the basement and dig those pix out and up into the light. And another one of those days I’ll beat it down Bama way and be found standing upon the land my uncle Doug saw fit to pass on to my undeserving self. I’ll listen to the creek burble and hear the wind through the boughs, and I’ll figure out a way to honor him and his gift that’s far better than that which I’ve attempted to do here.

 

I blew it. Missed the centennial anniversary of the oldest familial object in my possession. For several years, bestowed upon me by my mother who’s kept it I don’t know for how long,  I’ve had a remnant of my grandmother’s father’s life: a Gordon pipe clamshell case seen below (click it for the bigger picture):

pipecase

Also seen in that image above is a piece of paper that I found within the case when I opened it up. It’s a receipt for $2 spent made out to my great-grandfather W.D. Sims (William Devon), most likely for the pipe and case. I say “most likely” because the receipt is not specific, only identifying the purchases made as “50 cts incidentals — $1.50 supplementals.” But the fact that the folded piece of paper was kept for so long within the container seems to make a good case that one resulted from the other.

The reason I’m mentioning it is that the document, written in pencil by one A.S. Scott, is 100 years old, dated December 2, 1912. Of course, I’d been planning on mentioning it on the actual anniversary of its creation, but I’m three weeks and a day late because I’d gotten it into my head that the date was sometime at the end of the month, not the beginning.

And when I cracked open the case to doublecheck the date this morning you can imagine how disappointed I was that I’d missed it by such a margin. Of course the disappointment is quickly supplanted by the amazement at holding a century-old moment in time of one of my ancestors. Owing that I have absolutely zero knowledge of the branch of my family that extends back from my unknown father, it’s nice to be able to hold something in my hand from the side to which I do have a connection, however tenuous it may be.

There’s an amazing story about my great grandfather that I’ve taken various incomplete stabs at drafting into written form. It’s full of details I’m woefully inaccurate about, the anniversary of which is the least of my worries. What I do know is that it was post-Civil War when he was a much younger man and a sharecropper somewhere in Alabama, and it involved him killing a man in cold blood who had taken to harassing his mother over a debt… one substantially more than two dollars, and that he paid off in full the moment before gunning the man down where he stood cash in hand.

Whether my great-grandfather’s intent to zero out the debtee’s heart rate upon zeroing out the balance owed was pre-meditated, or whether the deceased brought about his own demise with some derogatory and/or condescending words that in a hundred years of hindsight would have been better to go unspoken so soon upon receipt of the money, is both an historical and plot point with which I continue to grapple.

 

 

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