Before Black Friday? The Christmas Tree Hunt

2 Christmas Pictures 2To commemorate my 2nd anniversary as a blogger, I decided to share with you an update on my very first post.  I don’t think it was read by anyone, but it was my first.  Like most stories it is better with some more stuff added after thinking on it again.  There is nothing like being immersed in a season to dislodge new and old thoughts.

The Christmas Tree

Getting the tree up and decorated after Thanksgiving signals the beginning of the Christmas season and grants official permission to be excited about all that looking forward to and celebrating Christmas has to offer:  family, friends, fun, food, music, memories, the Savior’s birth and, yes, presents under the tree.  This year has me longing for the Christmas tree outings my father, brother and I made each holiday season.

Not too soon after Thanksgiving, the sight of my father piddling around the workbench under the carport and the rhythmic metallic grating sound of file across the business end of my grandfather’s old Kentucky ax meant the yearly ritual was forthcoming.  Surplus paper mill work gloves, leather chaps, freshly sharpened ax and baling twine were all located and loaded into the family Oldsmobile.

I have no idea why we had a roll of sisal baler twine.  We did not live on a farm.  The only time I recall ever using it was once a year for the Christmas tree.  We didn’t use much but we still had a whole roll.  I would bet my brother’s best clip-on tie that the roll of twine is still somewhere in my father’s workshop.  After packing the trunk, my brother and I would jockey for front seat position on the long bench seat of the 63 Olds.  Eventually, one of us would give up the window and slide to the hump, neither of us ever willing to concede a place in the front. Off into the west Alabama countryside we drove to find the perfect Christmas tree, a cedar tree.

I remember being fully astonished when I realized that Christmas trees could actually be other species besides cedar or, worse yet, store-bought and even aluminum or plastic.  To us, cedar trees were Christmas trees.  This was not by accident.  The regional black belt soil with underlying Selma chalk limestone is littered with cedar trees.  Besides being plentiful, when good Christmas tree height they are the perfect shape, have fairly dense foliage and fill the home with a woodsy-fresh spicy aroma.

In the course of his regular travels to and from work, or on the way to the local air strip, Dad sometimes would have already had his eye on a tree and retrieval was all that was required.  If not, we would drive the back roads searching for an appropriately Christmas shaped tree.  The best trees were always lone trees in a clearing with even growth on all sides, but they were hard to find.

I don’t recall ever wandering onto just any property for a tree, but the truth is that I am not so sure that sometimes that wasn’t the case.  There was a fair amount of timber property owned by the local paper mill to which we presumably had access, especially out by the airport or across the highway by the union hall.   But I am not so sure about the legal status of the trees we harvested north of town across the Black Warrior river bridge on the road past the turnoff to Runaway Branch.   It was certainly tempting after a long search, spotting a particularly nice looking tree with only two or three strands of barbed wire between it and us.

I reckon there is the possibility that some might brand us Christmas tree rustlers.  But really, it’s not like we were stealing cattle or shooting someone else’s turkeys, we were just gettin’ the Christmas tree.  Later on after my brother and I started making the trip on our own, we usually ended up taking trees more legally on railroad right-of-ways.  After they grew to a certain size, the railroad company came through with sprayers to kill them back anyway.  We were simply providing them a more noble ending.

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When we were young, Dad wielded the ax.  As we grew he let my brother and finally even me take turns at the year’s honor, always with admonition to not cut off a foot.  Getting to and dragging the tree back through the Alabama brush was a chore.  Dad donned his cowboy boots and chaps for tree hunting trips.  The only things separating my brother and me from the briars were our Sears toughskin jeans and dollar store sneakers.  Toughskin jeans were akin to wearing chaps, at least for the knees.  They were guaranteed hand-me-downs.

We only forgot to wear long sleeves or bring gloves once.  A cedar tree scratches and itches bare skin more than any other evergreen.  The sap sticks to your skin like gummy superglue and leaves a black stain that only time and new skin cells can remove.  But oh, how the smell made the drag back to the car worth all the trouble.  Even the frightful timber, space, timber, space, timber walk back across the old wooden railroad trestle seemed to pass more quickly while dragging the tree.  Long after my brother and I had matured beyond Santa Claus, we still made the yearly pilgrimage to the same set of tracks, talking about life and walking a good country mile or more from the car in search of the right tree.

One of the key features of the 1963 Oldsmobile was the size of the trunk.  No matter how big the tree, we could usually get the bulk of it in the trunk and not have to tie it to the roof, even though we had enough twine to tie a forest to the car.  Once home, the bottom squared up with a hand saw, placed in a bucket of water and leaning against the clothes line, the number one axiom of Christmas tree harvesting again becomes evident.  That is, they grow an extra 2 feet on the drive home.  So, we trim a little more off the bottom, being careful not to mess up the shape.  Even with 10-foot ceilings, it seemed every year the very top would have to be trimmed in order to mount the star.


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The above picture on the left was taken when I was 4, the very first Christmas in our new home on Strawberry Street.  The cedar Christmas tree remains bent from being too tall and the star is not yet placed.  Yes, those are strings of popped corn hung like garland on the tree.  That was an old school tradition my mother’s mother always enjoyed.  I recall sitting around the back hall table with my siblings, stringing popcorn and having my grandmother scold me for eating more than I strung.

I was 9 at the time the next picture was taken in 1968.  For some reason we were late getting to the tree that year and Dad proudly showed up one day with a store-bought fur of some sort, shipped down south from some Yankee tree farm.  There’s no telling what he paid for it, but we were like, “Aww, Dad. That’s not a Christmas tree!” It’s the only year I can ever remember not having a cedar tree that we harvested ourselves.

I do love that Christmas 1968 picture. The more notable things that make me smile are the pajamas, the old 19 inch black and white TV, the Wilson football, the vintage Easy Bake Oven, my big sister’s curlers, my little sister’s unwavering gaze at Mrs. Beasley, our crew cuts, my brother’s ears and the store-bought Christmas tree.

Enjoy your tree this year and the memories it will bring for years to come.

Merry Christmas.

Musings from the Darkroom: Famous Name Game

I’ve been spending lots of time in the car with the girls.  One of our favorite pass-times is the famous name game.  For the uninitiated, the name of a famous personality is called and the first letter of the last name becomes the first letter of the first name to be used by the next contestant.  Our rules:  No repeats.  Initials are allowed only if common.  Character names are also permitted if properly cited. The “famous” part can be challenged and disallowed by consensus.

I always try to be educational by naming authors, presidents and older movie actors and singers but wasn’t above using Sheldon Cooper when stuck on yet another S name.  My 18 year-old is very competitive and instituted a 20 second rule.  The 10 year-old was allowed sole possession of Disney Channel actors and characters, but surprised us when she called me on incorrectly naming Star Wars’ sound track composer Robert Williams instead of John Williams.  Here are some recent highlights:

“Roberta Flack”

“She sang Killing Me Softly when it was first a hit in the early 70’s.”

“They had hits back in the 70s?”


“Orville Wright”

“Dad, didn’t you mean Orville Redenbacher?”

“No, Wilbur’s brother…just what do they teach y’all in school?”


“F. Scott Fitzgerald”

(blank stares)

“You know…The Great Gatsby?”

“He didn’t direct The Great Gatsby!”


“Dad, are you gay?  You don’t know who Sofia Vergara is?”


Holiday Letters…Humbug

Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a real holiday letter.

Season’s Greetings from (…ohhhhhh, let’s say…) the Simpson’s!

Good god, has it really been a year since I wrote last year’s pack of lies?  If you are reading this, consider yourself lucky.  The mutt ate most of the address book because the economy is so bad and groceries are so expensive we stopped buying dog food, except for grandpa.

2012 really sucked big gnarly ones.  Nobody did anything.  Nobody achieved anything.  Nobody was awarded any medals for anything.  I didn’t get a raise.  My job still sucks.  The people I work with still suck.  I still suck.  That’s why I’m still stuck in this dead-end job ‘till I die of a heart attack.

Lisa is still playing her saxophone.  God help us, she’ll keep playing the blues and probably marry some loser drummer and have to live with us while her sorry husband searches for that pot of grunge drummer gold.   At least she’s not pregnant, yet.

The baby is still sucking on that nunu.   Her teeth will be messed up but it does keep her quiet.

Bart managed to stay out of jail this year and, to date, as far as we know, has not sired any offspring.

Marge is still my blue haired old lady.  I can’t believe we’ve stayed married all these years.  We have managed to work ourselves into subsistence, requiring a minimal amount of communication and sex only on a seasonal basis… whether we need it or not.

But truth be told, I am thankful for Baby Jesus and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  You see, even though it was used as a medical ointment and burial spice, myrrh was also used in early recipes for mead.  And from mead we got…beeeer, mmmmm.  For that I am truly thankful!

DOH!  Happy Holidays!

Musings from the Darkroom: Dog Days

The whippoorwill singing atop the live oak by the lake can barely be heard above the katydids, the rumbling of offshore storms and the hum of the mosquito magnet working overtime in the backyard’s windward corner.  The slow, yellow-green blinking of lightenin’ bugs seems abruptly switched on and the white flashes of the approaching storms fill the impending darkness as the retreating sun de-saturates dusk’s canvas.  Even at this time of the evening the temperature remains oppressive while the seasonal sou’westerly trade winds keep the humidity palpable.  Streams merge with tributaries that form rivers of sweat flowing south across our nearly naked bodies as we bask in the sauna that is August in Florida.  We are deep in the dog days of summer.  And, making it official, there in his normal evening perch in the foxtail palm sits the mockingbird, songless.  Relentless they are, these dog days of summer.  It seems they will never end.

Mockingbirds sit out this harshest part of the summer.  But no, we aren’t so smart.  We continue suffering our daily activities, wondering how anything might have ever been done in the deep south with clothes on and without air-conditioning…or a blender and ice.  Blended, frozen libations in overpriced insulated plastic tumblers and the occasional dip in the pool are the sum of our attempts at mediating the endless onslaught of dog days.  It’s a difficult battle, but one we are willing to wage.  One made easier by the knowledge that heat and humidity do not require a shovel.  I’ll let y’all know when the mockingbird starts singing again.

Musings from the Darkroom: Does this thing shoot far?

My most favorite example of geographical dialect confusion comes from Chilton County, Alabama.  A co-worker of mine in Birmingham who lived south of the city on a large farm in rural Chilton County was birthday present shopping for her little brother at the local Walmart in the county seat, Clanton.  In the toy section, she closely examined all the various models of super soaker water guns with which a young boy could ever hope to terrorize his sisters.  Pumping the action of the magnum version, she asked the woman working toys, “does this thing shoot far?”  To which the astonished employee responded, “Oh NO MA’AM, it just shoots WATER!”

Musings From the Darkroom: Blog Recognition

I hope it hasn’t appeared too ungrateful, but I reckon I’ve breached blogosphere protocol with my inattention to some very generous and thoughtful accolades.  I am most appreciative to,, and for recognizing me as a Versatile Blogger; for Steph’s Blog on Fire nomination; for the Liebster Blog Award; and finally to for the Reader Appreciation Award.  Mostly, I’m pleased that there are those that find the view of my world through my viewfinder or laptop keyboard worthy of review.  Thanks!

The rules for all of these are similar.  If you choose…

  1. Add a photo for the award you received to a blog post.
  2. Link back to your nominating blogger in your post.
  3. Tell us some random stuff about yourself that might not be evident by following your blog.
  4. Nominate some worthy bloggers for the same award you received and leave them a note linking them back to your award post.

I probably won’t be as wordy as some with my nominations. All of these nominations are for bloggers that, even given my limited blogging time, I still try to regularly view their pages because of either unique content or exceptional artistic skills (or sometimes both).  And, I really do enjoy blogs that take me places I either rarely go or never have been.  Where possible, I’ve tried to avoid nominating anyone for an award they have already surely most deservedly received.  These are in no particular order.

My nominations for the Reader Appreciation Award:

My nominations for the Liebster Blog award (Liebster being German for favorite)

My nominations for The Versatile Blogger:

My nominations for the Blog on Fire:

7 random (or not so random) things about me:

  1. I am the proud father of two beautiful daughters.
  2. I have played the trumpet since the age of 12 and own as many trumpets as I do cameras…I think?
  3. I was very fortunate to have marched in a historically famous drum and bugle corps, Spirit of Atlanta, 1980.
  4. I hate broccoli.
  5. I ride a Honda 750 cruiser and, unlike most all the other baby boomer cruiser riders in Florida, I wear a full-face helmet.
  6. Mad Men is the bomb, but I am still upset that AMC cancelled Rubicon.
  7. The older I have become, like my photographs, the shades of grey between black and white have taken on more significance.


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Papa Allen and the Oysters

Known to most as Coach Allen, Papa Allen or Papa Lou to the fortunate that knew him outside school and church, and his wife, Trice, were close family friends. I was too young to have had him as an instructor. By the time I matriculated through the public school system, he was finishing his educational career at the local private school. My memories of Papa Allen center around both the church and the kitchen table in our home on Strawberry Street.

Attending First Methodist, we usually sat several rows back on the left hand side right behind Mr. and Mrs. Allen. When called upon, he always spoke the most amazing prayers. They were beautifully ornate without being pretentious. I always felt that surely the Lord couldn’t help but answer prayers so thoughtfully composed and elegantly delivered. I know now that the Lord cares only that the words come from our hearts, but his words seemed to always come from a humble heart and thoughtful mind, a rare combination even within church walls.

If I didn’t know better, given the amount of time he spent in our home one might think something untoward had gone on between my mother and Papa Lou. If, indeed, he indulged any unhealthy appetites on North Strawberry Street, it all happened in mother’s kitchen. Like most southern kitchens ours was the center of activity, always with something baked sitting on the counter and a fresh pot of coffee on. Whenever he made a run into town from his home out Range Line Road, he always found an excuse to stop in for a visit.

Like all of our friends, he would let himself in the back door, heading straight to the kitchen looking for the day’s treat and some good company. You see, Papa Allen was a diabetic, but he knew mother would let him cheat on his diet, or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, mother and Mrs. Trice had been in cahoots for years. She always called mom to let her know how his blood sugar was that day so, if necessary, she could hide the sweets.

Whether it was over a piece of caramel cake or cheese and crackers, Papa Allen spent plenty of time in his chair at the south end of our kitchen table drinking black coffee sweetened with saccharin from a bottle he always had in the pocket of his sport coat and participating in one of the other great southern activities, storytelling. The number or length of those stories seemed directly correlated to his appetite, “June, cut me off another smidge of that pie, just enough to finish off my coffee.” And then another tale would start, sometimes tall and other times taller, it seemed in some way reimbursement for the hospitality. Praying or storytelling, he was a master southern linguist with impeccable timing and always captivating content. The oyster story is classic Papa Allen from his youth.

Oysters Come to Marengo County

On a family trip to Mobile father had eaten oysters for the first time, had thoroughly enjoyed them and was determined to have them again. This was difficult in a time when few country folk owned automobiles.  Living a good day’s train ride up from the coast and long before refrigerated shipping, father’s prospects for fresh oyster stew seemed slim.  But father was persistent and finally managed to locate a seafood house that arranged to have a barrel shipped upstate on the train. One day word came that the oysters were finally arriving. Father ordered him and Brother Bill to hitch up the wagon; they were going to the train station to retrieve their Mobile Bay delicacies.

The oysters arrived intact and still cool, having been packed in alternating layers of ice and moss. Once back at home they unpacked the barrel and took the oysters into the kitchen where mother proceeded to demonstrate to their cook, Miss Margaret, how to use the short dull knives they had picked up in Mobile to shuck the oysters. Placing the insides in a clean bowl and leaving Miss Margaret to her duties, mother went on about hers.

After an hour or so, mother came back to check on Miss Margaret’s shucking progress and found her over the sink scrubbing the mud and moss off the last of the oyster shells, placing them with the others that had been cleaned, dried, polished and lined up on the countertop alongside the empty oyster bowl. When asked how things were going, a bewildered Miss Margaret replied, “Missy, I dun’ cleaned ‘dem oysters and th’owed da’ guts to da’ hogs, but fo’ God, I don’t see how you gon’ cook ‘em tender.”

Driving, The Motorcycle and Driver’s Ed: Part 3, Driver’s Ed

By age 15, my motorcycle license also doubled as a driving permit.  I don’t recall if it was my sophomore or junior year, but I had driver’s education with Coach Shelton.  Coach was a slow spoken, quiet man who I had known for some time, having attended school and church with his son.  Drivers Ed went along fine with the films and book learning for the first couple of weeks and then it came time to start the driving.  I had been driving some with my dad but had mostly been using the motorcycle as my primary mode of transportation.  I was not uncomfortable behind the wheel and could even drive the manual-clutch, column-mounted stick shift on the 1966 Dodge Dart however, I was by no means confident in my ability to handle everything on four wheels, especially the school Buick.

The 4-door 1976 Buick LeSabre was your Daddy’s Buick, not that little Japanese wannabe Tiger Woods drives to the strip club after golf.  This was a car from an era that still fully embraced its nostalgic history of bold, masculine lines and expansive design. This car was at least 54 feet long and had a turning radius and suspension rivaled only by a cruise ship.  I have owned cars that didn’t have a wheel base as long as the LeSabre’s front quarter panel.  A normal sized person, or two, could completely lie down on the LaSabre’s bench seats without banging their heads, or so I heard.  It was enormous.

I can still hear Coach’s voice as he chose me and another classmate on the first day of driving, “Boy, you take the wheel.” Seats, mirrors, AC and belts adjusted, I slowly pulled out of the school driveway awaiting his next command, “Why don’t we head out north of town.”  Hoooly crap!  That only meant one thing.  I was going to have to drive this boat across the river bridge.  The only thing more frightening was the possibility of failing his course with a poor maneuver that dumped his chewing tobacco spit cup off the dashboard into his lap.

I had never driven across the river bridge and most certainly not on my motorcycle.  It seemed there was a tragic accident every few months on the river bridge, exacerbated by the fact that my home county was dry and just across the bridge was a wet county with alcohol sales starting immediately across the bridge.  There is a nice new, long, wide bridge now, but back then the old bridge was as narrow as most that were eventually converted to one-way bridges with stop lights on each end.  Like the new bridge, it was tall enough for tugboat and barge traffic to pass, but it was shorter, steeper and dangerous.  North, up Hwy 43 I headed with sweaty palms sliding on the ginormous plastic steering wheel.

It would have been dreadful enough to meet a truck on the bridge, but noooo as soon as we approached the bridge we met an entire convoy of 18 wheelers. Truck after truck after truck came barreling down with me navigating a wheeled barge directly into their path.  I don’t think I closed my eyes, but with each passing truck, I mentally made that air sucking past my teeth noise my mother always made and to this day still makes in scary traffic.  I can remember wondering what would cause the least damage, having one of those trucks take the driver’s side mirror or have the Coach’s mirror knocked off by the bridge’s railing.  Luckily, we made it to the other side with both the Buick brown paint job and mirrors intact.  We turned around in the parking lot at Carl’s Supper Club, or was it called Big Daddy’s by then?  I am reasonably certain most of the people in my class drove more than once, but that was the only day I had to drive for Coach.  I’ve never blinked an eye crossing any bridge since.

Driving, The Motorcycle and Driver’s Ed: Part 2, The Motorcycle

Inexorable angst over teenage driving notwithstanding, I am reminded of what it was like to be that age, hankering for some small semblance of freedom that could only be found in personal transportation.  For me, it was a street legal Suzuki dirt bike my dad purchased for my brother and me at the age of 12.  By the time I turned the ripe old age of 14 my brother had a car and I had a motorcycle license in my wallet.  Yes, back in the day all you had to do at 14 was pass the driver’s permit written examination and the State of Alabama would give you a motorcycle license.  Newfound freedom was indeed sweet but also delivered my first direct interaction with local law enforcement.

The only wreck I ever had on a motorcycle happened right in front of the chief of police.  I was headed to a friend’s house, making a turn off Hwy 43 past Elk Food Mart across from the police station. The bike came out from under me on some loose gravel in the intersection.  It wasn’t that bad, I wasn’t going all that fast.  As I picked up the bike and surveyed my scraped up body parts, I saw that the Chief of Police had stopped at the same intersection in time to view the incident.  I had just laid my bike down not eight feet from his driver’s side door.  Surely, he was going to take my license away and not allow 14 year-olds to ride motorcycles anymore and it would be all my fault.  The Chief rolled his window down and asked, “You OK son?” With a simple “Yes Sir,” he was gone. The occasion of our next meeting lasted much longer.

One Sunday night after church I decided to take advantage of a long summer day and enjoy a ride out to the lock and dam on the river before dark.  Approaching the s-turn that cuts across the railroad tracks from W. Jackson Street over to Lock and Dam Road, I got stuck behind an old junker that was billowing oily smoke all over me and doing all of 10 miles an hour. Even though there was a double line on the turn, he was going so slow I decided to pass anyway.  About the time I was ready to zip back into my lane, not one, but two patrol cars with lights flashing came flying around the turn right at me.  Fortunately, I managed to squeeze back in front of the junker before being run over by my hometown’s finest.  It didn’t kill me, but it just about scared me to death.  I was so shook up that I was almost to Foscue Park before I noticed that wherever the two cops were going in such a hurry, they must have only needed one of them, because the other one came to get me.

The officer checked my credentials and escorted me back to the police station.  After sitting for a few painstaking minutes I was taken into an office to see none other than Chief Johnson.  He sat there quietly looking at my license and finally asked, “You live over on Strawberry Street?”  “Yes Sir.”  “That big yellow house?”  “Yes sir.”  “Your dad works at the paper mill?”  “Yes Sir.”  “Come on go with me.”  He didn’t even have to say it; I knew he was taking me home.  “Can’t you just write me a ticket?”  “Nope, your dad will take care of this.”  Having my mother answer the front door to our house with me standing alongside the Chief of Police is all the motivation I have ever needed to stay out of jail.  As suspected, Dad took care of it.

Driving, The Motorcycle and Drivers Ed: Driving

Everyone’s got driving on the brain. My 16 year-old, #1 daughter is doing plenty of driving; mostly driving me crazy about wanting a car and doing plenty of pouting if she is not always the one behind the wheel. My 8 year-old, #2 daughter drove me around the entire 18 holes today for the first time. Now she really thinks I’m the best, as long as she gets to drive the golf cart again tomorrow. Unconditional love seems to sprout conditions on a weekly basis these days. Most of my friends and relatives about my age are at some stage in the unleashing of offspring upon the motorized public. Not the least of which includes the worry of and maybe even the reality of that first fender bender. We have no one to blame but ourselves, really.

It all started with the eldest just short of her third birthday. One morning at breakfast, she informed me that she wanted one of those real driving jeeps she’d been admiring at the local toy warehouse for her birthday. Furthermore, she asserted her budding feminine nature by declaring, “Now Dada, there are (with two fingers raised) twoooo kinds of jeeps at Toys R Us, there’s the red one, and it’s… well, just plain. (Thoughtful pause) What I’m trying to tell you Dada is I like the prissy one (the Barbie Jeep).” Of course she got it. And there I was, like a good Dad, the night before her birthday assembling said Barbie Jeep and cussing like a Detroit engineer until 3 am.

She was a little afraid of it at first, but before long she was saddling up faster than Bo and Luke, shifting gears and driving around the yard like she was ready for Indy. Just why is it that we enjoy seeing our young children doing adult things? Well, apparently she was more ready than we knew.  A few short weeks later as we were piling back into the van at a rest area on the way to the beach, she very seriously asked if she could drive the rest of the way. The amusing part of the ensuing discussion, which went on for some time, was her persistent, clearly logical and almost indignant insinuation, “How hard could it be? I drive my Barbie Jeep every day!”