Apr 24, 2018

The Music of the Primitive Baptists...

The circular chapel at Davis & Elkins College, where this story begins
In the mid-1980s, I was a regular attendee of the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.  I had taken several craft and music classes during previous summers and decided to attend "Choral Week" at this time.  I could enjoy an entire week of singing and relaxation in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia.  On the Sunday evening of my arrival, the class was invited to meet in the unique and inspiring Robbins Memorial Chapel, a circular building with marvelous acoustical qualities in which many of our classes would take place.  The purpose of this first get together was to meet the faculty and learn what options were available for our class selection.  We would choose a morning path (I chose 3-, 4-, and 5-part harmony taught by Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin) and an afternoon path (Ensemble Singing with various instructors), and an optional evening "Mini class" (I chose Black Gospel Music taught by Ethel Caffie-Austin).  It would be a very busy but fulfilling week.

After we had assembled in the chapel, the instructors were introduced.  Each one briefly described their backgrounds and qualifications and then sang a sample of the music he or she would be teaching that week.  The variety ranged from cowgirl music (taught by Patsy Montana, the first woman vocalist to record a million-selling record) to Slavic folk music to Southern Appalachian hymn singing, taught by Ginny Hawker.


Ginny Hawker holding her
Primitive Baptist hymnal
When Ginny began to present her sample of music, she selected a traditional Primitive Baptist hymn.  She explained that she had been raised in the Primitive Baptist tradition.  In that tradition, all the melodies of hymns are passed down aurally; there was no music notation in the hymnals that her church used.  As she described it, the hymnals only contained the "poetry," i.e., the lyrics.  When she rose to begin singing, the chapel became quiet.  Her crystal-clear unaccompanied voice began, "Oh, sing to me of heav'n. When I am called to die; Sing songs of holy ecstasy, To waft my soul on high."  The chorus repeated the line, "There'll be no sorrow there," and concluded with, "In heav'n above, where all is love, There'll be no sorrow there."  She sang several more verses to a rapt audience.

When she had finished, we were all speechless.  Her voice was spectacular, and the listener sensed that they were hearing generations of devoted, deeply religious disciples captured in a single event.  There was no applause, as there had been for the previous instructors.  Instead, one of the girls sitting in the front pew rose, went over to Ginny, and quietly hugged and thanked her.  Another followed, and then another, and soon, in the silence of that vast space, every member of the audience proceeded in line to embrace and thank Ginny Hawker.  We all knew that we had just experienced something very special.

I resolved at that moment that I would eventually take a class from Ginny Hawker if the opportunity ever presented itself.

The following year, I received the Augusta catalog and there was the opportunity.  Ginny and her father, Ben Hawker would be teaching a class in "Primitive Baptist Hymn Singing" at the workshops that next summer.  I signed up immediately.


Ben Hawker, holding the infant Ginny, from her
album cover, "Letters from my Father,"
A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to Elkins, I received a letter from the two instructors.  Ginny and her father expressed their excitement at the prospect of meeting the class and enjoying a week's fellowship, and they encouraged us to purchase a small hymnal for use in class.  I ordered mine immediately.  It is a small, blue colored book, and contains only the words to the hymns.  There is no musical notation!  In some cases, it may refer to a tune that one assumes must be familiar to the users (Sung to the tune "New Britain," for example).  Other than those cases, the singer is expected to know the tunes by heart, having learned them by hearing them sung repeatedly.

Not long after that, Margo and I made our annual trek to Elkins.  We had a pop-up camper that we set up every year at Revelle's campground, located on the banks of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, 9 miles east of Elkins, West Virginia.  Margo planned to spend her days reading, writing, and tending to three dogs.  I would attend class during the day, then pick Margo up for evening activities -- mini-classes, concerts, and socializing.

Sunday evening, we had a "get acquainted" meeting at the chapel on campus.  We learned that the class would be conducted in one of the classroom buildings during the mornings.  We had about twenty people in the class.  There would be plenty of time for give-and-take with both Ginny and Ben.  We would have a general outline of material to be covered, but the class would go where the conversation would take us.  We eagerly looked forward to Monday morning.


The Primitive Baptist church at Cades Cove,
in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
On Monday, Ben Hawker began by sharing with us the history of the Primitive Baptists – also known as Hard Shell Baptists or Old School Baptists.  He explained that they are conservative Baptists adhering to a degree of Calvinist beliefs that coalesced out of the controversy among Baptists in the early 19th century over the appropriateness of mission boards, tract societies, and temperance societies.  The adjective "Primitive" in the name conveys the sense of "original" rather than old fashioned or unsophisticated.  In short, as I recall Ben's explanation, your salvation is a matter that involves you and God and I have no business imposing myself or my opinion on that interaction.

Ben shared that one of the effects of growing up in a town in which everyone was a member of the Primitive Baptist church was a lack of gossip.  It was the worst form of sin to gossip about your neighbor, since their relationship with God and therefore their conduct is a private, sacred matter.  Very interesting.  We spent a good part of Monday morning captivated by Ben Hawker's narrative of his growing up in this religious tradition.  Primitive Baptists reject the idea of Sunday School, viewing it as non-scriptural and interfering with the right of parents to give religious instruction to their children.  Instead, children are expected to attend at least part of the church service.  Primitive Baptists consider theological seminaries to have "no warrant or sanction from the New Testament, nor in the example of Christ and the apostles."  They perform foot washing as a symbol of humility and service among the membership.   The sexes are separated during the ritual where one person washes the feet of another.  The practice is credited with increasing equality, as opposed to hierarchy, within Primitive Baptist churches.  I was completely uninformed of this unique set of religious practices.

One important part of their tradition was their music -- unaccompanied, unadorned by excessive ornamentation, and passed on aurally from one generation to the next.  Over the next four days, Ginny and Ben would gradually share a small but precious portion of that tradition with the members of our class.


Each member of the class had purchased the small blue hymnal in advance and brought it to the class.  The initial edition had been published in 1881.  The foreword revealed the humility and sincerity of its original authors:
"In compiling this book, our design has been to supply a want long felt amongst us, and to encourage the love and practice of Sacred Music in our Churches and the social circle which has, of late years, been greatly neglected. 

Throughout our labors, which have been attended with great anxiety of spirit and pecuniary expense, our constant and prayerful aim has been to select only such hymns as comport with sound doctrine and tend to encourage the spirit of devotion; to bring hymns and tunes together in such manner as to secure an appropriate adaptation of song to sentiment; and to produce a work in every respect equal to the demands of our Churches, and, as a whole, inferior to none of the kind ever before published in this country.  How far success in our endeavors may justly be claimed is submitted to the decision of an intelligent and unbiased Christian denomination."

We proceeded during the week to learn several traditional hymns from our Father/Daughter mentors.  We realized that within the aural tradition, the most minuscule affectations get passed down.  The tiniest grace note, a slight hesitation, or a yodel-like lead note was present when either Ginny or her dad sang the same song.  It was uncanny.  (and it caused me to wonder how many successive generations are represented by these tiny melodic irregularities).

The week went by in a flash and we had been promised something special on Friday.  That morning, Ben told the heartwarming story of his tiny home church in Southwestern Virginia, the church in which he had grown up.  When he was a young boy, very few of the church's members had cars.  They arrived at church on horseback or in modest wagons, often the working wagons from their hardscrabble farms.  The roads in the winter months often became impassable, so church services were suspended for about three months each year.  On the last service of the year, they recognized that some members might not make it through the Winter.  They closed out the service with the very same hymn that Ginny had sung on Sunday evening.  But as the hymn proceeded in our small classroom, Ben Hawker started a procession in which each member of the class approached each of the other members and embraced them with a hug as the hymn proceeded.


Oh, sing to me of heav'n.
When I am called to die;
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high.

Chorus:
There'll be no sorrow there;
There'll be no sorrow there;
In heav'n above, where all is love,
There'll be no sorrow there.

When cold and sluggish drops
Roll off my dying brow,
Break forth in songs of joyfulness,
Let heav'n begin below.

When the last moments come,
Oh, smooth my dying face,
To catch the bright, seraphic gleam
Which o'er my features plays.

Then to my raptured ear
Let one sweet song be giv'n;
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav'n.

There were no dry eyes in the room when we concluded.  We had reenacted the farewell service that played out in Ben's old church at the end of every season.  We had, in our feeble way, bid goodbye to each other.  It was a memorable way to conclude a most memorable class.

I corresponded with Ben for a few years after the class, but never saw him again.  I have seen Ginny in concerts a few times since then and she never ceases to amaze me with her voice and knowledge of traditional music.

Apr 18, 2018

Paul Julius - Luckiest Man in the World?!?

Gato-Class Fleet Submarine, similar to the types that Paul
would have served on during World War II
When I started working at Ingalls Shipbuilding Division of Litton Industries in 1972, we had a lot of World War II veterans in the workforce.  I worked with one gentleman who had been a B-17 pilot, had survived his planes destruction by the Luftwaffe, and had spent the last two years of the war in a German POW camp.  Another colleague was a Pearl Harbor survivor.  There were many and they all had amazing stories to share, but I believe I was most fascinated by Paul Julius, a retired Navy Warrant Officer.  I think he may have been the luckiest man I ever knew from the standpoint of "coincidences" that spared his life.
     Paul Julius had entered the navy shortly after Pearl Harbor.  After boot camp, he attended a couple of electronics schools before being assigned to USS Preston (DD–379), a Mahan-class destroyer.  On the evening of 14 November, 1942, Preston, as part of TF 64, sailed along the western end of Guadalcanal to intercept another Japanese run down the “Slot” to bombard Henderson Field and land reinforcements.  Swinging around Savo Island, the force, two battleships preceded by four destroyers, entered the channel between Savo and Cape Esperance.  At 23:00, the battleship Washington picked up the Japanese cruiser Sendai on her radar, and, at 23:17, the Third Battle of Savo Island began.
     As Paul related it to me, he had gotten off watch at midnight but since it was incredibly hot he decided to sleep in the number 3 gun mount, since that was his battle station.  This ultimately saved his life.  Approximately eight minutes after the enemy was engaged, USS Walke was hit.  Soon after, Preston, preparing her torpedoes, was struck.  One salvo from Nagara had put both fire rooms out and toppled the after stack.  Her fires made an easier target and shells came in from both port and starboard.  The fires spread.  At 23:36, she was ordered abandoned.  Seconds later she rolled on her side.  She floated for another ten minutes, bow in the air; then sank, taking 116 of her crew with her.  Paul Julius was in the water with a life jacket on and was rescued within a couple of hours.  He ended up ashore on Guadalcanal in the company of the U.S. Marines.
     After a couple of weeks, Paul was offloaded and informed that he had been selected for submarine training and found himself on his way to New London, Connecticut.  After 6 months of submarine training, Paul was assigned to a brand new fleet submarine home ported in Pearl Harbor, HI.  He made his first war patrol and after a couple of months, returned to Pearl Harbor.  The day after the boat tied up, Paul proceeded to the base hospital for his required annual physical.  While he was off the ship, shipyard workers were busy installing a new piece of equipment to help locate submarines stranded or disabled in somewhat shallow water.  It consisted of a mechanism mounted on the top side of the hull that contained a small explosive device.  Over this was fitted a flotation marker that, when launched by a stranded sub, would float to the surface, attached to the sub by a cable.  The floating object then acted as a radar reflector and homing beacon to find the boat.
     Paul was unaware as he returned to his submarine that the repair team was preparing to test fire the locator device with a lightweight mockup.  As Paul crossed the brow to board his home vessel, the device was launched and struck him in the groin and testicles.  Ouch!  He was returned to the hospital where he remained for several days.
     His submarine left on its next war patrol without benefit of Paul's presence.  It never returned from that war patrol.
     After Paul recovered, he was assigned to another sub in the South Pacific Command.  He made two successful war patrols.  Upon his return from the second, he learned that he had been promoted to Warrant Officer and was no longer eligible to serve on submarines.  He was being transferred to a Submarine Tender where his skills and knowledge could be better utilized.  You may have guessed - his sub went back to sea and never returned.  Assumed lost at sea with all hands.
     Paul survived the war and remained in the navy.  He eventually became one of only two Warrant Officers ever selected by Admiral Rickover for the nuclear power program.  And after he retired, he came to work at Ingalls Shipbuilding, which is where our paths crossed.  I have written previously about my friendship with Paul's son, Peter.
--000--
Unfortunately, Paul passed away from a heart attack when he was a relatively young man.  It shocked those of us who knew him as a bigger-than-life colleague and committed friend.  In spite of his early demise, I still reflect on his World War II experience and am convinced that his higher power was certainly watching out for him!

Apr 12, 2018

A Walk in the Woods, Rufus Morgan and a Great Hurricane...

Mount Albert Panorama, Courtesy of Kurtis Kruse
Ever since I was a Boy Scout, starting in 1951, I have loved the outdoors and the activities that took me there, especially backpacking.  In 1979, the couple who had introduced me and Margo, Jim and Linda Schmitt, invited me to go on a five-day hike in the area surrounding the Standing Indian Campground in Western North Carolina.  For some reason, Margo could not or didn't care to join us, so it would just be the Schmitts, me, and my German Shepherd named Lady.
     We planned our hike in early September.  We would drive to North Carolina, planning to arrive at the Standing Indian area by nightfall of the 10th.  That night, we would stay in the Rock Gap shelter on the Appalachian Trail, a shelter quite close to a paved road with a parking area.  The next day, we'd hike to the next shelter traveling south on the trail, the Big Spring shelter.  Then on the 12th, we'd stay overnight at the Carter Gap shelter, followed on Thursday, the 13th, at the Standing Indian shelter.  On Friday, we'd hike into the Standing Indian campground and spend a night in the primitive camping area in our tents.  We were very excited about the hike.  Jim is an avid nature photographer and was equipped and prepared to return with lots of images.

A German Shepherd with
a saddle pack like Lady's
     I left on Sunday to drive part way with the idea of meeting the Schmitts on Monday at Rock Gap.  Lady had her red saddle pack with her own water and food.  She loved backpacking and was a terrific hiking companion.  I was prepared with a heavier-than-normal pack containing enough food to last five days.  The Schmitts met Lady and me around 3:00 in the afternoon of a gorgeous Fall day.  We stowed our gear at the nearby shelter, making certain we'd have sleeping space for the night, and hiked a mile or so to visit the John Wasilik Memorial Poplar, at that time believed to be the largest living poplar in the world with a girth of over 27 feet at its base and a height of about 140 feet!  (When I first visited the tree in the mid-1960s, it was believed to be the largest surviving tree east of the Mississippi River, and was so designated in 1969.  Subsequently, a slightly larger Poplar was discovered in Virginia.  In the late 1990s, the tree was killed by a lightning strike, became a hazard, and is, I believe, slated to be cut down.)  The tree was named for John Wasilik, a forester, a District Ranger, who worked in this area back in the 1930s.   In 1933, the tree now known as the Wasilik Poplar was one of two large Poplars which were approached by loggers.  They cut down the first tree and hauled it out with a team of oxen.  By the time they got the first tree up to the road, the oxen team was too exhausted to go back down for the other one.

The base of the Wasilik Poplar in its heyday
     After taking a few pictures around the giant tree, we hiked back uphill to the shelter, prepared dinner, ate, and relaxed around a campfire until we were too tired to do much else.  We crawled into our sleeping bags and settled in for the night.       Everyone awoke rested and ready for the first day of real hiking.  It was a spectacular Fall day.  Leaves were turning, it was cool enough for comfortable hiking, and our next shelter was only about 5 miles away.  We wanted to take our time hiking, since we were not in the greatest physical shape, and we wanted to Give Jim plenty of time for picture taking.
     After a fairly leisurely hike with lots of picture taking, we arrived at our next shelter.  One reason we took our time was that we were ascending a fairly steady slope up Hurricane Ridge to nearly the top of Albert Mountain.  I would soon learn the irony of that name, Hurricane Ridge.  We ascended during the day from 3,760' at Rock Gap to 5,047' at Big Spring.  We saw a few hikers during the day, but had no company that night in the shelter.  The weather was perfect for hiking in t-shirts during the day, but once we stopped moving, we quickly put on long sleeved shirts.  This was the perfect time for a good outing.  The weather was cool enough to prevent overheating but warm enough that one didn't have to bundle up against the elements.  We wasted little time in preparing a freeze-dried concoction for dinner, with Lady eating canned and dry food that she had carried herself.  In no time, the small campfire had become little more than embers and our little party of hikers had retired to the shelter floor.

     The next day would be a moderately short hiking day, with only six miles to the Carter Gap Shelter.   Shortly after we started our hiking, we spotted the Albert Mountain fire tower.  It was no longer in use, but was still in good enough condition that we were able to climb to the top and take lots of pictures.  We then descended a well-defined trail until we found ourselves in Bear Pen Gap (We knew because we saw the sign for the Bear Pen Gap Trail.) where we stopped to enjoy lunch and take even more pictures.  Then we headed further south, crossing several water sources, until we reached the Big Spring shelter late in the afternoon.  Again, we saw a few northbound hikers but had no company in our shelter that night.  We did notice that it was starting to get cloudy late in the afternoon and commented that we might need rain gear the next day.  We didn't let that possibility interfere with our sleep, from which we arose when daylight flooded our lean-to shelter.

The current Standing Indian shelter that replaced
the one in which we spent the night in 1979
     We cooked breakfast and got an early start on Thursday, September 13.  We had almost 8 miles to go to the Standing Indian Shelter.  The day was overcast and much cooler than the previous days.  The hike was uneventful and we arrived at the shelter around 3:00 PM.  This shelter is at an elevation of 4,760' and when we arrived, was in beautiful shape and very clean..  We thought we had the shelter to ourselves again, so we quickly laid out and hung up our gear.  It started drizzling soon after we arrived at the shelter and the wind began to pick up, so we ate a little bit early while we could still light our cook stoves.  I noticed that Lady was acting somewhat strangely, not settling down and prowling between the shelter and the area around it.  By the time darkness came, the wind was howling through the nearby trees and every once in a while, we'd hear a limb come crashing down.  Not long after dark, the lightning and thunder started and the rain became quite intense.  It became a spectacular fireworks show with lightning crackling through the woods every few seconds.  My brave German Shepherd took refuge in one back corner of the shelter and buried her nose.  I had never seen Lady behave this way before.  Then came the biggest surprise of the night.
     About 10:00 PM, Lady began to bark at the darkness outdoors, we thought we heard voices and almost instantly there were two new arrivals at our shelter!  Two extremely wet and very grateful hikers, both young men in their twenties, emerged from under a couple of ponchos that could never have kept them dry under the gale-like conditions that had continued to deteriorate over the last 2-3 hours.  The hikers were from Florida, were northbound on the AT, and had inadvertently wandered off the trail in the intense rain.  It had taken them a couple of hours to relocate the trail, which explained their late arrival.  What was left of their flashlights had become practically useless.  We were amazed they could even stay anywhere near a trail.  They were incredibly grateful to be under cover.  After the usual greetings and introductions, we made some hot cocoa to help warm them up.  The talk naturally focused on the weather, at which time one of the young men said, "This has to be the remnants of Frederic."
     When we had left civilization earlier in the week, there had been a tropical storm in the Gulf that had crossed over Cuba and just about dissipated.  What we had been unaware of was that the storm, named "Frederic," had strengthened in the Gulf, become a hurricane again with winds of over 130 miles per hour, and had come ashore along the Mississippi-Alabama line near Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre, Alabama.  This was of great interest to me, since I owned a couple of rental house trailers in a trailer park near that area in a business partnership with my brother Bill.  I feared the worst for my trailers and prayed that their occupants were safe.
     The next morning, the storm had passed.  Everything was drenched from the effects of the near-horizontal rain of the storm, but the sun was bright and we hung most of our gear on nearby branches to dry out.  There was a moderate breeze to help out.  I informed Jim and Linda that I was going to "bushwack" down a nearby stream to get to civilization as quickly as possible in order to call my brother.  I would meet them later at the Standing Indian Campground.  I wanted to make sure Bill and his family, who lived in Pass Christian, Mississippi, were safe.  Then I wanted to learn if he had been over to the trailer park to check on our two trailers and our renters.  I also was concerned about my former residence, a house in Gautier, Mississippi, not far from the point of landfall, that I still owned and had been unable to sell since Margo and I had moved to Huntsville the year before.

The creek near Standing Indian shelter
     I surprised myself at how quickly Lady and I progressed down the steep stream bed, favoring whichever bank was most easily traversed.  Within an hour, we came to a dirt road and began hiking to our left, in the direction of the commercial campground.  I knew I'd find telephones there.  Remember, this was decades before the advent of cellular communications.  I was looking for a phone booth with a pay phone.
     Lady and I had probably walked less than a mile when I heard a chainsaw in the distance and then spotted a pickup truck on the side of the road.  As we approached it, I saw an older couple engaged in cutting firewood from dead trees.  They put down their tools and we exchanged introductions.  They were Donald and Frances McLean of Franklin, North Carolina, the nearest city of substantial size.

Rufus Morgan, whose daughter, Frances, and
son-in-law, Donald McLean, came to my rescue
     I explained my plight and they immediately offered to drive me to the Standing Indian Campground, where they assured me we would find pay phones.  We put Lady and my gear in the back of the truck along with their tools and some firewood, and the McLeans and I squeezed into their very used old pickup for the four or five-mile drive to the campground.  As we conversed, I learned that Mrs. McLean was the daughter of the famous naturalist and author, Rufus Morgan.  I was dumbfounded.  I had admired and respected her father for many years as a result of my interest in the Appalachian Trail.  The description of his life on the Find-A-Grave site summarizes him better than I could ever hope to:  "Naturalist, Author, explorer: Rufus Morgan was one of the early pioneers in the founding and development of the Appalachian Trail. Raised in the far western mountains of North Carolina he was well acquainted with the various peaks and valleys of the area. Following the proposal for a national trail to follow the spine of the Appalachian Trail he was a natural to develop the trail route from the Georgia Border to The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. He was the original author of the Appalachian Trail Guide for this part of the path. Over the years he introduced thousands of people to the Appalachian Trail, the Nantahala Gorge, and the National Park. He was blind for much of his later years of life. During this time he continued to lead trail hikes up to Wayah Bald or LeConte Lodge. Though blind he was so familiar with the trail he would stop and turn to a nearby tree and point out a blooming wild flower at the base of the tree. He was a founder of the Nantahala Hiking Club. Dr. Morgan was a graduate of the University of North Carolina, The General Theological Seminary in New York City and Columbia University. After serving a Church in New York City he returned to his native North Carolina where he took on a mission to the rural mountain areas. He would serve churches in North and South Carolina. While working Mitchell County in the 1920's he assisted his sister, Lucy Morgan, in the establishment of the Penland School of Crafts in the shadow of Mt. Mitchell. The original purpose of the school was to train local unemployed women in forgotten traditional crafts. Today the Penland School serves an international body of people in the training of traditional mountain crafts ranging from weaving and wood crafting to Blacksmithing and pottery. As a botanist he cataloged, discovered, recorded and named a number of wild flowers in the North Carolina Mountains. These have been restored in The Bishop's Garden at St. John's Cartoogechaye Episcopal Church in Macon County. In the early 1940s Dr. Morgan retired to his native Macon County. As a project he rebuilt the historic St. John's Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye Valley of Macon County. The foundation of this church was built using abandoned grave stones from the cemetery. For many years Dr. Morgan held the record for climbing Mt. LeConte in the Great Smokey' Mountains National Park. For both his 88th and 89th birthday's after hiking up Mt. LeConte he stayed at LeConte Lodge on the Top of the Mountain. He would climb the mountain more than 172 times. The Appalachian Trail foundation has recognized his contribution to the Trail by erecting "The Rufus Morgan Shelter" in the Nantahala Gorge. Along the Wayah Valley the Rufus Morgan Trail leads to the Rufus Morgan Falls on the Rough Fork creek. In 2014 he was inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame."
This image shows the result of Frederic's passing in Gulf Shores,
Alabama, close to where my trailers had been located.
     Before long, we had arrived at the campground.  The McLeans had been most kind and generous but refused to accept any compensation.  We exchanged addresses and for several years thereafter exchanged Christmas cards, though I never saw them again in person.  I was able to call my brother.  I learned from Bill that our tenants had fled the scene in plenty of time to escape the storm.  His description of our trailers left little to the imagination.  "It's real easy to read the serial number on the frame when the trailer is on its roof and only about four feet tall!"  I also learned that my home in Gautier had sustained substantial damage and that a fallen tree had totaled a vintage car that I had recently moved to the back yard of the house.  Eventually, we collected insurance on the totaled trailers and liquidated our trailer business for good.  I repaired the house in Gautier and eventually sold it.  I also sold the remnants of the car to a friend to harvest some valuable parts that he needed.
     What had started out to be a walk in the woods had turned into one of those adventures of a lifetime that are so fascinating.  By the way, though only five were killed directly, the $1.77 billion in damage accrued by Frederic made it the Atlantic basin's costliest tropical cyclone on record at the time.

Mar 21, 2018

Too Close for Comfort...

The long-range forecast map

It seems that just about anywhere you choose to live, there are issues with some kind of unpleasant weather.  I grew up in Upstate New York.  We had our share of blizzards and plenty of lake-effect snow.  Our summers could be sweltering and terribly humid.  When the Navy sent me to Norman, Oklahoma, I quickly learned why the government established the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center there.  Later, when I lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we had to be concerned about hurricanes.  And for the last 40 years I've lived in the North Alabama/South Central Tennessee region known for its devastating tornadoes.

On more than one occasion, we've gone to our "Safe Place" at the bottom of the basement stairs, in an area reinforced by the structure surrounding the stairs and with a couple walls in most directions between us and the great outdoors.  This past Monday turned to be one of those days.

Over the weekend, our local weather teams had been forecasting some nasty weather that could potentially breed some strong winds, large hail, and even a few tornadoes.  Monday morning we started to see "closings" being announced by schools, businesses, and government offices.  I've been working from home, so around 4:00 PM, I joined Mary Ann in front of the TV, where every local channel was totally devoted to weather coverage.  Several cells popped up, mostly to the south of us, moving almost due east.  Nothing appeared too threatening until this bad boy decided to rear its ugly head:



Bottom line was a tornado spotted on the ground near Ardmore, Tennessee, moving due east at 45 miles per hour.  Note on the picture the location of our "Safe Place."  Soon, we started to see reports of wind damage and very large hail in Russellville, AL and Athens, AL.  There was a large tornado heading toward Cullman, AL as we decided to seek safety in the basement.  The Ardmore twister was predicted to reach our area at 7:06 PM.  "If you live anywhere between Hazel Green, AL and Parks City, TN, take shelter immediately!  We have a tornado on the ground that has been sighted by storm chasers."  It was eerily quiet in the basement.  We stayed there for about ten minutes, able to watch the live streaming of our favorite weathercaster on an iPad.  We emerged to the first floor to find no issues.  We soon learned that the storm had tracked a couple of miles south of us, where it wiped out some lumber storage warehouses:


Further to the south, closer to Lake Guntersville, they received baseball-size hail.  Ouch!



Once again, we dodged the bullet and once again offered prayers of thanks.

Mar 20, 2018

The Chestnutts of Whiteville, NC...


World War II was in my opinion a high point in this nation's history.  The nation and its people were called upon to perform the impossible.  Our resources were strained to the limit.  Our people sacrificed in every way.  The results are staggering -- the very survival of our civilization as we know it.

In the course of responding to the call, many families were caught up in cataclysmic change.  Families moved, youngsters were taken by the armed forces, trained, and sent to places they'd never heard of.  People who had retired and housewives who had never planned to have a job outside the home suddenly were employed in the war effort.  One such affected family was that of Mr. and Mrs. Norwood B. Chestnutt of Whiteville, North Carolina.  Mr. Chestnutt was a state Agricultural Agent and part-time tobacco auctioneer.  He and his wife Mabel lived at 106 N. Madison in Whiteville.  That is, until Uncle Sam came a callin'.

In early 1942, the U.S. Army conscripted Mr. Chestnutt, and, because of his professional standing and experience, commissioned him an instant Lieutenant Colonel in the Quartermaster Corps.  He was now Colonel Chestnutt!  After he finished a few months of training he was informed of his first duty station - North of the Mason-Dixon Line!  Colonel Chestnutt became the proud commandant of the Schenectady Army Supply Depot.  And that's where he and Mabel crossed paths with Dr. and Mrs. Harold R. Mead.  Thus he and Mabel became Uncle Ches and Aunt Mabel to me and my siblings.

From my first recollection of the Chestnutts, I loved to hear them speak.  They had a syrupy sweet southern drawl as smooth as molasses.  Aunt Mabel could stretch the word "darling" into a daaahlin' that was 5 seconds long.  Both of the Chestnutts were avid golfers, so they fit right into the social circle of my parents, centered as it was at the Mohawk Golf Club, a friendly club dating to 1898.  In spite of the northern location, I think the Chestnutts felt very welcome and loved by a wide circle of friends.


My clearest memory of the Chestnutts came on Wednesday, August 14, 1945.  That was the day that brought an end to World War II, the day Japan surrendered.  We were at Lake George, at the cabin my parents rented each summer.  The Chestnutts were spending the week with us.  On Wednesday morning, the news came over the AM radio that the Japanese had surrendered.  Aunt Mabel announced that she would be preparing her "famous southern-fried chicken" to celebrate the end of the war.  It was an all day affair with lots of chicken parts being shaken in paper bags of flour and seasonings.  But there was a steady flow of celebratory bourbon underway as well.  I recall that by the time we had chicken and fixin's on the table, we also had flour on every surface of the kitchen, including walls and ceiling.  The celebration was boundless.

Not long after the war ended, Uncle Ches and Aunt Mabel moved back to their home in North Carolina.  Ches became a state Agricultural Vocational Training Supervisor.  Their friends in Schenectady stayed in touch over the years.  In 1959, my parents bought a new Ford sedan and decided to visit the Chestnutts.  After my Midshipman cruise had ended, I was recruited to be the driver.  We took two days to get to Whiteville, and it was a joyous reunion of old friends.  During our stay, their commode malfunctioned.  (it was a tiny, 2-bedroom, 1-bath house.)  Aunt Mabel called Mr. Simpson, the plumber.  "Mr. Simpson, this is Mabel Chestnutt and I have a problem.  I've got company from the Noath, I got a stopped-up commode, and I've got the dysentery!"  Mr. Simpson was there within minutes.  We stayed a few days.  My parents relished the time they spent with these unlikely acquaintances.

A Weekend Well Spent...

Pampas Grass in a landscaping application
When we landscaped our property in 2005, the landscaper included lots of Monkey Grass (a low-growing localized plant, no more than 1 foot tall) and 14 Pampas Grass (a localized grassy plant that can reach over 10 feet in height).  According to one garden supply house, "'Erianthus' Hardy Pampas Grass (also known as Ravenna Grass) is cold hardy, and makes an excellent specimen plant all year. Airy, white plumes form in mid-summer over green foliage. Leaves turn to bronze then red in fall. Plant can reach up to 10 feet tall. (Saccharum ravennae)."  My experience with this plant has shown it to be very hardy, but requiring an annual trim that becomes something of a chore as the plants grow inevitably larger.

A few weeks ago, Mary Ann asked me to cut back the Monkey Grass and Pampas Grass -- their annual "haircut."  It's an easy chore on the Monkey Grass.  I simply use a push-type rotary lawn mower.  I tip it up on its back wheels, roll it until the blade is directly over the plant, And tip it back towards level, removing the tops of each plant.  Simple, but effective.  Here, you can see the result of that "shearing."

This weekend, I finally got around to the Pampas.  It's usually a 2-person undertaking.  Mary Ann gets on one side of the plant with me on the other.  We pass a ball of string around the plant to tie up and secure the stalks of grass so we can handle them.  Once we have tied them, I cut the stalks about 8"-12" above the ground with hedge trimmers.  Then the two of us working together, wrestle the huge shock of grain into a wagon, from which it migrates to a dumpster.

But this year I was on my own, as Mary Ann is dealing with a painful pinched nerve in her back.  I started by pounding a piece of steel re bar into the ground near the first plant.  I tied a piece of twine to the upright bar a few inches off the ground.  Then I walked the twine around the plant a couple of times eventually tying it back to the starting point.  Then I did the same a few inches higher on the plant.  After three or four of these trusses were tied, I could cut the plant near its base using the hedge trimmers.  It took the better part of an hour for the first plant, but I got faster with each one.  After two days and 14 plants, the place looks like humans live here!


Mar 18, 2018

Rubber Molds...


When I was growing up, my father had his dental offices in our home, in the two rooms that would have been parlors or sitting rooms when the house was built.  He was by modern standards an "old school" dentist, doing much of his own laboratory work -- the fabrication of dentures and partials that today would be turned over to a dental laboratory.  He therefore had a small work area in which he could melt and cast precious metals, polish, and finish his work.  Interestingly, at one point he took a class in lost wax jewelry casting, although he never pursued that avocation after making a few small jewelry samples.

On weekends, my brother and sister and I often hung around Dad's lab as he worked on his craft.  To help us occupy our time, he had certain activities that we enjoyed participating in.  Sometimes we'd make things out of dental wax.  I recall one wax product that was in a small box.  It contained sheets of rose-colored wax resembling sliced cheese, separated by thin paper sheets.  I would cut pieces out of these sheets using a scalpel like tool and "weld" the individual pieces together with a flat tool heated in a Bunsen burner.  I would make 
small houses, bridges, cars, airplanes, and animals out of wax, an activity that often occupied me for hours at a time.

Another activity we enjoyed was making plaster castings of comic strip characters in hard rubber molds and once they had hardened, painting them to match their printed images.  My father had apparently acquired this set of molds somewhere and realized they would make an ideal craft activity for us kids on bad weather days when we couldn't be outside.  For some unknown reason, I recently thought about those silly rubber molds and decided to see if I could learn anything about them.  To my amazement, a set of the exact same molds I knew as a child were for sale on eBay!  The description brought back a flood of memories, "Vintage 1930s rubber molds for casting plaster figures of "Famous Funnies" characters. Made by Play Products, Inc. in Chicago, Illinois. Great item for vintage comic book or toy collectors. "Famous Funnies" is considered to be the first true American comic book and character molds include Little Joe, Skeezix, Tiny Tim, Winnie Winkle, Smitty, Andy Gump, Terry and Moon Mullins. Character names are printed inside each mold. Not a complete set. What you see in the pics is what you get. Comes in original cardboard storage box featuring Little Joe and Orphan Annie on the lid. Each mold measures 3.5" to 4" high. Box measures about 4.25" wide, 8.5" high and 3" deep. Very Rare Item!! Very good overall condition. Most rubber molds have hardened over time, but are fully intact and a few are still pliable. Paint set may not be original to the box and has been used. Box shows normal aging and wear from handling, but is complete. Small tear along top edge as shown in the pics."  The pictures reflect my precise memory of the molds themselves -- a kind of dark brownish maroon color, rather thick and quite rigid.




We would begin by covering my dad's marble workbench with newspaper and carefully lining up the molds in an orderly row.  We'd mix a batch of plaster-of-Paris in a small measuring cup.  Once the consistency was that of pancake batter, we'd carefully pour it into each successive mold, filling it to the top edge of the mold.  Then we'd tap each mold several times with a small tool to loosen and eliminate any bubbles in the plaster.


Each molded figure stood on a base with lettering identifying
the character - in this case, Smitty.  Smitty was a character developed
by Walter Berndt who appeared in the Chicago Tribune and about
100 other papers.
In a few minutes, the plaster would set up, and usually within an hour we could flex the mold and eject the small cartoon character.  We'd relieve the sharp edge where the surface of the poured plaster met the mold by scraping it with a small metal scraper.  Then we'd spend hours painting and talking about our creations.

A Smitty comic from the 1930s
Interestingly, with the exception of Dick Tracy and Li'l Orphan Annie, I don't think we were acquainted with any of the other comic characters.  That didn't seem to matter as we painted faces and clothes belonging to Little Joe, Skeezix, Tiny Tim, Winnie Winkle, Smitty, Andy Gump, Terry and Moon Mullins.  It didn't matter that they were cartoon strangers.

Several things have crossed my mind as I thought about the countless rainy Saturday mornings that the Mead kids spent with the "rubber molds."  There were no batteries or electronics involved.  We were engaging creative portions of our young brains.  We were socially engaged with one another as we gabbed about our creative efforts.  There are certainly far worse ways to occupy your time.