Monthly Archives: April 2014

Americana

Driving through the Shenandoah Valley is an interesting experience. For me anyway. I hear the history calling. It’s happened before. The first time I noticed it was when I was in Germany as a teen. We were in a church with a chapel dedicated to the mariners who’d lost their lives in a shipwreck. As I stood there, I heard them calling. The men who’d gone down to the sea in ships. And perished in the storm. It was weird.

But in the Shenandoah hear the voices of the Native Americans. And the Scots and Irish settlers who drifted there during the Colonial era. And then there was there Civil War. War between the States. War of Northern Aggression. The Unpleasantness. Whatever you want to call it. It’s amazing how the animosity lingers.

Driving at seventy miles an hour on the interstate I can cover a lot of ground pretty quickly. But an army, on the march, with scouts and supply lines, they would move slowly. And for four years they marched back and forth through this valley, Yankees and Rebels, fighting over the ground. And ideals. And a host of other things. Back and forth. From Shiloh to Manassas to Gettysburg. Not all in the valley, but up and down the line. I can see them. Hear them. And smell the campfires. And gun smoke.

Every time I come through here I see the signs for the Frontier culture museum in Staunton Virginia. I always say I should stop, but never do. Until this year. Off the interstate, and down a long, long side road, you finally come to the museum parking lot. You’d never know you were within earshot of the interstate.

And wandering through the place you’d never know you were in the 21st century. There is an African village set up representing the Africans brought here as slaves. A Native American village from pre-colonial days. And examples of 18th century life in Germany, Ireland and England. Places from which people came to settle here.   It’s a great place and I enjoyed my brief stay there. I should note that Staunton Virginia is also the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, 268h President of the United States. And within the city is preserved his birthplace, now the Presidential Library. More history.

This evening I found myself at another venue of American history. Not so much the place, but the activity. This was the Athens Americana Musical Festival in conjunction with the Athens Orthopedic Clinic Twilight Criterium annual bike race and festival. This was Friday, and the big race was scheduled for Saturday, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I ventured Downtown. I knew there would be music. Athens is famous for music. REM. B-52s. You know?

I ate dinner at Little Italy, where the beer is cheaper than the pizza slices, and the food is always good. Then ventured off to the outdoor music stage. This was the free part of the festival. My kind of place!

It just so happened that the act performing was Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. I get the Blair Crimmins part, but I don’t know why he calls his drummer and horn section hookers. Riff? Hook? IDK.

This group, who I never heard of, seemed to have a local following. They are form Atlanta so maybe people have seen them there, or they’ve been to Athens before. But they played great music. Dixieland Jazz and Ragtime. With a catchy foot stompin’ magnetism. Of course ragtime and Dixieland jazz are purely American forms of music. And they have influenced other musical genres around the world.

I think of Scott Joplin and The Sting when I hear the term ragtime. But there is a lot more to it. There were people who got up and just danced up a storm. I wish I could dance. Or had that kind of energy. Blair belts out some tune at a hundred mile an hour pace, then says the next song is going to be a fast song! How can he move his lips so fast! This anin’t no plug for the band, and they sure aren’t payin’ me. , but I like the music and if they come back to ton I might even go see them again

America is an amalgamation of many cultures. But there are some things that are purely American. That’s part of what makes us unique. And that’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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The Staircase

Back in the day people weren’t terribly concerned with building codes. You took pride in your work. Maybe you were building the family farmhouse, or log cabin on the frontier. This was your home. You did your best and hoped it didn’t either fall down or burn down. Not everyone was a good builder and a lot of houses fell down. Or burned down. Or were abandoned. Driving through the country I see a lot of what I like to call fixer uppers. Collapsed piles of brick, wood or stone, far beyond any salvation.

Building houses has always been expensive so you used available materials. A tree you used for a wall in the cabin was just a tad beyond ripe. That rock in the foundation wasn’t quite flat and the house seemed strangely out of kilter. These kinds of things made for funky imperfections. Character. Along comes electricity. We replace gaslights, and their danger of burning down your house and the whole block, with electric lights. A miracle. And a jumble of wires running everywhere through the house. Now the danger is bare wires and overloaded circuits.

And who builds their own house nowadays? You rely on builders being professional, experienced, and ethical. You have no idea what lurks beyond that sheetrock.

I watched in amazement as my aged parents navigated the staircase in their old stone farmhouse. Sixteen stairs. Creaky old wood. Covered in carpet. On either side of the staircase was a handrail. Rickety on both sides. The stairs were steep. And narrow. Not up to code I would say. But good for their day.

My mother would go up ok, hauling herself all the way using the handrails. It was coming down that was so scary. She’d come down sideways. Holding on for dear life. One foot down, then the other. Two feet on a step. Then to the next step. Until she reached the bottom. At age 87 she seemed quite comfortable with it. But she’d been up and down these stairs thousands of times over the past thirty-eight years.

The stairs hadn’t changed a bit in those years. But she had. And I had visions of her tumbling down from top to bottom. Ending up much like the fixer upper I mentioned earlier.

I love the house. And the stairs. But I was glad she and my father were moving to a two-bedroom apartment. All on one floor. In a building with an elevator. But damn if they didn’t take the stairs to their place on the second floor! Tough old bird.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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The Front Porch

She called me a romantic. Not like Don Juan with all the girls swooning. Or the most interesting man in the world. I don’t drink dos Equis, but I do stay thirsty.

There is a difference between being romantic, all hearts and flowers and such, and being a romantic.

I’m pretty sure that there have always been people who could be termed romantics in the second sense. They just didn’t have a name for them until the end of the 18th century when the Romantic Movement began. This was when a lot of artists and writers and philosophers were breaking away into a post Enlightenment movement. Folks like Goya, Verdi, Keats and Shelley.

What was happening was that these creative people were expressing themselves via their hearts. Emotion and feeling. Moving away from the rules of the day. Expression through the mind and a literal representation of things and ideas.

For years my mother had a painting hanging in the kitchen. A bright watercolor of a very inviting front porch. Wide space with plenty of shade and big comfy furniture. Down south we’d say it was a great porch for visiting and sippin’ sweet tea. Not my parents front porch, but not too different.

For my parents fiftieth anniversary we children gave them a painting of their farm home. Big old stone house. Big front porch. Very welcoming. The painting is firmly rooted in realism and depicts every detail in perfect absolutism.

I like the make believe porch picture better. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parent’s house. Including the porch. But it’s the other painting, the one that gives me a hint and let’s my mind run free with my ideas about the porch that I love so much.

Thinking with my heart and not my mind. The painting is just one example. I guess she was right about being a romantic.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? Www.personalhistorywriter.comImage

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White Knuckles!

Here in the South they say never plant before Easter, meaning that at any time until then it’s possible to get a killing frost or snow. Now that it’s Easter I feel comfortable enough to talk about snow without fear that Mother Nature will throw some at me!

We drove home from Pennsylvania, through the Appalachians. My wife said she wanted to see the mountains covered in snow but for the roadways to be clear and the driving to be safe. This morning we awoke to find an inch of snow on the ground, and the white stuff still falling. Now it’s a light snow. There are some schools closed, and some schools opening late. The staff at the front desk says the roads are clear. And safe, albeit a slow go.

But up ahead stands the big mountain. The one with the runaway truck ramps. The one that’s even scary when the weather is good. That’s where the main storm is headed and we have to go over it. Or we can go west, away from the storm, toward Asheville. I think we might go to Asheville.

Years ago we made a similar trip home through the snow. Much worse, and further south. It started in Raleigh and continued all through the Carolinas to the Georgia border. White knuckle all the way. Making way at fifteen miles an hour on the interstate I figured if I could just keep going I’d be ok. Stop and you’re stuck in the snow. Slow and steady. That was my tactic.

Not everyone felt the same way. Some of the drivers must have thought that the faster they went, the sooner they’d be out of the storm. I saw all sorts of cars and trucks slipping and sliding. Off the road in a ditch. Even flipped over off the road. By the time we got out if it, the antenna on the van was more than an inch in diameter. Solid ice

In the end we opted for the big mountain route. The Asheville route would keep us on back roads in the mountains all the way home.

Between the snow and fog we entirely missed out on the spectacular views from the top. But within a few miles we were out of the snow, looking instead at green grass and budding trees.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.comImage

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Peaceful Dining

Restaurants that are loud are no fun for me. I’m half deaf from too much loud noise in my life so I can’t hear conversations very well anyway, but when it’s loud, and I have to holler to be heard, it’s just no fun. I guess I’m looking for too much.

A favorite restaurant of mine is an Italian place in New York. We found it a number of years ago when we went for an extended weekend. We were staying in a hotel a block or so from Central Park South, east of the park. A block or two down the road we walked into this place with an Italian name. I don’t remover what it was.

The inside was very elegant. Dimly lit. Lots of candles, carpets, crystal chandeliers and goblets. The kind of place where dinner for two costs a couple hundred bucks.

The maître d had on a white suit. Black hair, slicked back. And pointy shoes. Shiny. And we were the only ones in the place. Very quiet. Very. Except for Pavoratti singing in the background.

My dream come true. Since we were the only ones there we got a lot of attention. I couldn’t decide if this was a mob front or a legit place, but it was nice. As were the people.

My youngest daughter wasn’t feeling well that night and couldn’t decide if she wanted to eat anything. The waiter mistook this hesitancy for not being able to find anything she wanted on the menu. A few moments later the chef came out and said that if she couldn’t find anything she liked on the menu he would be happy to make her anything at all. Menu or not. And the maître d came over and said that if she couldn’t decide on something his feelings would be hurt.

We explained the situation and my daughter and wife actually went back to the hotel. I was so happy there that I ate enough for all three of us.

On my recent trip returning from Pennsylvania we were in Lexington, Virginia at dinnertime. Lexington is the home of both the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Yes, George and Robert E.. You’d think there would be some nice restaurants and in fact there is a thriving, hip downtown.

Somehow we ended up a little outside the downtown area headed back toward the interstate. Without having eaten. Out of the corner of my eye, atop the hill I saw a restaurant. Well, an eating place anyway. The Redwood Diner. In the parking lot there was one car. My wife believes that if the parking lot is empty the food must not be good. We were there, and we went in. We were all alone. Not even anyone working there!

The waitress appeared and told us to sit anywhere. While we were there no one else came in. Very quiet. Good food. Friendly people. Just no customers. I loved the quiet. My second favorite place. Other than my mother’s kitchen.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? Www.personalhistorywriter.com

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The Farmer’s Market

Was the tomato homegrown was the simple question I asked. The response was a snide “do you think I grew it indoors?” Admittedly, it’s mid April, and the high temperature today is 60 degrees. Not exactly outdoor garden season yet. But it led to further discussion about how the owner of the tomato liked her okra fresh, and not frozen.

Another silly question. Had she visited the farmer’s market to look for fresh okra? Same time of year, same weather, but yes, the farmer’s market is open. There are actually several near here, and I see them on Saturday morning. Maybe they grow stuff indoors.

Around here, as I suspect is true in other locales, farmer’s markets generally are stocked by micro farm operators who are heavily into organic growing methods. Farms operated by John Deere normally have larger outlets for their produce. But I remember a different kind of farmer’s market from my youth.

I grew up in a subdivision home. But behind my home was a 100-acre piece of farmland where the fields were always planted in feed corn. Around Halloween the tractors would be out late at night, running with the their lights on harvesting the annual crop. During the winter there would be stubby stalks left over. Come spring, the field would be plowed anew and replanted. And all of the growing season we would run through the fields, up and down the long rows between the tall stalks.

I don’t know what happened to this corn when it was harvested, but on any given weekend we could ride in to town to visit the farmers market. Big, long brick building dating from 1911. The Fairgrounds Farmer’s market. It had a concrete floor and was filled with farmers selling their wares. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Baked goods. Meats and poultry. A little of everything. There were some places, like the Country Store, that had permanent shops. I remember that place because there was a large old wooden barrel in the store. When you took the lid off you found that it was about half full of soda crackers. And a cat!

During the summer this was the only place to buy a watermelon. Sure, other places sold them, but it was sacrilege to get one anywhere else. Fresh off the farm! All of this stuff was. You could see the dirt on the vegetables. And the farmer’s hands. Everything smelled fresh. Rich smells. Earthy. And the farmers all spoke like Pennsylvania Dutchmen. Because they were.

That’s different from Amish. But here’s a quick and chuckle inducing story about Amish farmers. I ran the Philadelphia Marathon several years ago and after the race we went to the big farmers market in the city. The Reading Terminal Market. I saw some Amish girls selling vegetables, and talking on their cell phones! Modern stuff like that is allowed for business purposes I guess.

The farmer’s market from my youth still operates on the weekend but it’s been years and years and years since I’ve been there. The local farmers market has good produce, and baked goods and soaps and such, but it just isn’t the same as what I remember from my youth. Nothing ever is.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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Caretakers of the Tree

The place was named Shadow Lawn Farm. At one time an expansive place with livestock including cows, pigs, chickens and horses. There was a two story bank barn in days of yore. The second story disappeared somewhere along the line and it became a one story barn with horse stalls and a place for tractors. And a garage. Then there was the house. A two story place made of stone dug out of the fields as the farmers worked the land.

No telling what the first place looked like, logs and mud maybe, but the original stone house was a two over two built in 1863. Over the years it was expanded, still using the stone as a building material. And then expanded more using wood. Porches were added, and covered up, until it looked like a stone center with wings spreading out in every direction. All based on the two foot thick stone walls of the original.

And from the beginning, out in the front yard, grew the little tree. But now, after all these years, I couldn’t possibly get my arms around its trunk. In fact, I believe that my full six foot arm span wouldn’t cover its diameter! With its numerous branches, from the ground up, and its sixty foot wide canopy, it casts one hell of a shadow across the lawn. Get it? Shadow Lawn Farm.

It’s not just any old tree though. I’m pretty sure someone long ago planted this beauty. Not an oak or maple or even hickory or elm. This is a copper beech. And a magnificent specimen it is! The largest in the county! I’ve only ever seen one larger. That one is so big that where its lowest branches have dipped to touch the ground, new trees have sprung up, themselves now with branches nearing the ground. That tree is protected from any onslaught by being located on a college campus. Carefully tended.

My tree grows in the yard. It touches the house. And reaches its branches out over the road in front. Keep in mind that the house sits over a hundred feet from the road. But running along the side of the road is the electric company power line. Quite a danger for a tree. No, the tree won’t get electrocuted. But the power company doesn’t like trees. The branches give squirrels a way to get to transformers to commit suicide. And black out the neighborhood. And the branches can fall off the trees and snap the power lines. Especially when everything’s weighed down with ice in the winter. So every once on a while the power company comes along with a whirring buzz saw and mangles anything near its power lines.

Except the copper beach. For nearly forty years my parents have stood guard over that tree. Recognizing its beauty. Grandeur. And significance. You can hear the power company coming for miles. And every time, my mother or my father would wait at the edge of their property to meet the power people. They would tell them about the tree. About its beauty. And significance. And every time, the power company people would get out a pair of pruning shears and gently take out a twig or two. Just enough for the power cable to run through the middle of the tree unobstructed.

If I remember correctly, in the winter the bare branches form a crazy maze of avenues. Spring brings leaves of purple. In the summer they turn green. And in the fall, oh, in the fall they turn that magnificent copper color and shimmer in the sunlight. Spectacular to see. And each year it grows a little taller, and wider, and closer o the ground.

My parents are moving this spring, before the leaves emerge. I don’t know if new owners of the homestead will know about the shadow lawn farm. But they will see the tree. The question is, will they intercept the power company buzz saw to preserve the tree? And its beauty.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? http://www.personalhistorywriter.com

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