Reading By Moonlight (2016)

(Last week, our North Carolina weather went from relatively mild to snow, freezing rain, and plummeting temperatures.  The full moon added light, but no warmth.  As always, it reminded me of the interminable winters we encountered during our years in the upper Midwest;  especially one  particular January night some 30 years ago.  Our latest bout of weather has prompted me to tell that story once again.  My original post went much like this:)

Sometimes I still check the weather in the northern Wisconsin town where we lived when our children were young. I see that the low temperature tonight is -6.  Got that?  Not the windchill, but the actual temperature: minus 6.

Weather can fool you there. Bright sunshine and glistening snow, a sparkle in the air…?  Those sparkles are ice crystals.  Stay inside and wait for the cloudy days.

I remember looking out my kitchen window many wintry nights when the snow reflected the moonlight beyond the shadows of the trees.  In fact, it seemed so bright that I could have gone outside and read by the light of the moon,  I preferred the lamplight of my own cozy home.

Our daughter Boo used to call that negative weather, an apt name on several levels. A deep breath of that cold air sent a sharp, knifelike pain into the lungs and left the nostrils frozen. To say that the cold became wearying about this time of year is to vastly understate its effect on the psyche.

I led a Brownie Girl Scout troop at the church next to the neighborhood elementary school. The Jr. Girl Scout troop met at the same time, right after school ended.   Coming up with indoor activities to use up some of their pent-up energy became more challenging each week. The two groups were congenial, so we decided to plan a combined activity: we’d hold a Father-Daughter Square Dance.

The other leader found a square dance caller: a farm couple who did this to make some extra money during the winter months. The wife taught the moves while the husband acted as caller and provided the music. We planned refreshments and rounded up big brothers to come and dance with any girls whose dads couldn’t be present.  I made my own little Brownie a special outfit: a blue gingham dress and bonnet like Laura Ingalls Wilder might have worn.

It didn’t take long for the dance to grow into a much-anticipated event for the girls. A date with daddy!

The temperatures on the appointed evening chilled to the marrow, cold even by Wisconsin standards.   I believe the windchill was -30.  The snow crunched beneath our boots as we trudged from car to fellowship hall, unloading the refreshments and decorations. By the time the girls and their dads began arriving, everything was in place except the caller and his wife.  No word from them.

A few games–Duck, Duck, Goose and Strut, Miss Lucy– entertained the girls for about thirty minutes. The fathers stood around the punch bowl, introducing themselves to each other. The other leader and I led the games and smiled even as we shot each other questioning looks and kept glancing at the outer doors. The caller was bringing the equipment, the music, and the talent.  We had no Plan B.

A blast of cold wind swept through the room when the double doors opened to reveal, not the expected caller, but a uniformed police officer. He walked over to the group of dads and asked which one of them was in charge. The men pointed silently to the two of us. We walked to the corner of the room with the cop where he explained that he had stopped a car for speeding and the driver had said he was on his way to a church function where he was supposed to be the entertainment. The policeman said he wanted to make sure because the story had sounded implausible. We assured him that the man was exactly what he professed to be.

The officer, still looking dubious, went out to the parking lot and returned with a tall, slim, slightly stooped man in overalls and a flannel shirt, followed a little blond girl about the age of my Brownies and a boy who was perhaps 11. The children were thin and solemn. One carried a small record player and the other, a stack of 33-rpm records.

The man introduced himself to the two of us and apologized profusely. “We had to milk the cows before we could leave. It takes longer when it’s cold like this,” he told us, “and my wife is feeling bad and couldn’t help. Don’t worry though. . . I can call and teach too and I’ll stay the full time we agreed on.”

Within minutes he had the group in a circle, explaining terms like “allemande left” and “promenade right”.  It didn’t bring out much hidden talent on our part, but certainly evoked much merriment. Learning “Swing your partner” and “Grand Left and Right” to take the inner and outer circles in opposing directions was easier and officially threw the evening as well as the dancers into full swing.

The other leader, also named Mary, and I couldn’t escape a feeling of unease. Something didn’t feel right. The boy would disappear, leaving the little girl to operate the music for her daddy, then the boy would return and whisper something to his dad. A few minutes later we’d see the little girl slipping quietly through the swinging doors.  When she returned, she’d whisper urgently in her father’s ear as he continued calling the dances.

Finally the man asked would we mind if he took a little break so he could go outside and check on his wife. His wife? We’d had no idea that someone had been outside in that subzero darkness all this time.

“Please,” we urged, “have her come inside. She can sit in the kitchen, she can lie down on a pew… bring her in to get warm!”

The man said he didn’t think she’d do that, but he’d ask her. He came back in alone a few minutes later. He shook his head at our questioning looks and came closer, lowering his voice. “She may be having a… miscarriage,” he murmured. “She doesn’t want to come in and disturb the children.”

It was obvious he meant our children; his own children held critical roles in the family drama and carried them out seriously. They’d politely refused the refreshments we offered. They were not there for fun.

We protested as adamantly as we could without letting the dancers overhear us. “We can cancel this,” we insisted to the farmer. “We’ll do it another time. Does she want to go to the hospital? What can we do to help?”

He was adamant in his refusal, insisting that we’d hired him and he was going to honor the commitment. He wasn’t going to disappoint all these little girls. We sensed that the money–$90, as I recall–was very important.  Health insurance?  No need to ask. We could tell by his reaction there was no way this woman would agree to a hospital visit.

We tried to reassure him that he HAD honored his commitment and had more than earned the payment, but he stubbornly refused to stop.

“I don’t take the pay if I don’t do the full job,” he said firmly and stepped back up to the microphone.

We were the only two adult women in the building, but the other leader’s husband was a physician and after she whispered the unfolding situation to him, he went outside to assist her however he could. The police officer, inexplicably still hanging around, followed him. The doctor was back in about ten minutes, shrugging his shoulders to us.

“She says this has happened before and she knows what to do. Doesn’t want to go to hospital and won’t come inside.  I think she’ll be okay. She’s pretty calm; it’s the cop who is in a panic.”

About 15 minutes later the little girl pulled gently on my arm. “Miss,” she whispered, “my mom says do you have some kind of little container you won’t be needing any more.”

I was confused. Did she need water to drink?  She shook her head. “She says it doesn’t need to be very big, but if it had a lid, that would be good.”

Suddenly I realized why the woman needed a container and went into the church kitchen.  I found a clean cottage cheese container with lid and handed it to the child. She accepted it with that same solemn expression and headed for the door, walking along the wall to be as invisible as possible.  My heart literally hurt as I watched the small figure heading out to serve as midwife for the mother who waited alone in the Arctic-like night.

The policeman rushed back inside and drew the doctor aside, whispering excitedly. The doctor shook his head and spoke briefly as if trying to reassure the policeman, who looked beyond ragged by then.

“He radioed for an ambulance,” the doctor told us as he returned from another trip outside. “The blood scared him.”

The farmer overheard this exchange and asked urgently, “Can you cancel it? She won’t go!”

But at that instant,  flashing lights strobed through glass block windows. The doctor grabbed his coat again and we took another break so that the man could go to his wife and join the growing tableau in the parking lot. Inside, our scouts and their fathers, except for our two husbands, remained oblivious to what was happening out there. The fathers, in an unspoken pact, appeared to be working overtime to make it an evening to remember for their little girls.

The farmer came back inside and began calling another dance for the revelers. The doctor whispered to us that he’d sent the ambulance away and would make sure the man wasn’t billed for it. Ironically, the ambulance fee at that time was $90.

At the end of the dance the farmer did accept a cup of punch while his children packed up the equipment. We did not insult him with small talk, but thanked him, quickly paid him his fee and wished them well. The trio did not look back as they headed out for their car and the woman who had waited in the frigid night for over two hours.

To talk of the incident seemed somehow to dishonor the dignity of that family, so we did not speak of it to each other afterwards, but I know that night affected me in ways I still don’t understand. When I hear of young women expecting “push prizes” for childbirth. . . when I hear Congressional arguments about how we can’t afford health care for all. . .  when I read of blizzards in the midwest or look at the moon on a winter night, I think about that family and what it must have been like driving home on that night.  I picture the mother, who was probably near my own age then, feeling that cottage cheese container in her hands lose its warmth… the father, driving more slowly on the return trip, facing another round of milking and feeding the herd before sunrise . . .and the children, who would help with chores and ready themselves for another day at a school where students segregated themselves by whether they were farm kids or town kids: Dirts or Jocks.  These children would be Dirts.

Other families often have visceral realities so very different from our own, but we see them  through our own small lens.   Until, that is, we step away from our own warm hearth. . .  and learn to read by moonlight.

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The Poppy Lady

Having read and been moved by John McCrae’s touching poem,  In Flanders Field, an American professor and humanitarian from Good Hope, Georgia,  decided that she would wear a red poppy from that day on as a sign of remembrance.  To make note of her pledge, Moina Michael wrote these words on the back of a used envelope.  She became the impetus behind the silk poppies being sold to raise funds to assist disabled veterans,   after teaching a class of disabled vets at the University of Georgia and seeing their struggles.  Eventually, the American Legion Auxiliary adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans.

WE SHALL KEEP THE FAITH

Oh!  You who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Written by Moina Michael, November 1918

Moina Michael died in 1944.  Four years later, the US Post Office issued a commemorative  stamp honoring her lifetime achievements.

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Mother’s Day 2014

After my mother died, my brother and I found several photos of her which had been taken by newspaper photographers.   The pictures had never been framed, simply tucked away in a drawer along with some of her unfulfilled dreams.

When World War II broke out, she went to NC State to learn welding so that she could help in the war effort–a Rosie the Riveter.  She headed for Baltimore to work in the shipyards there.  Instead, she ended up teaching welding there.

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This photo was taken at a parade during one of our town’s big celebrations.  Centennial, perhaps?  She’s the tall one in the capelet dress.  To this day, that’s my favorite plaid.  I used to peek at the dress which had been relegated to the bottom of her cedar chest.  I’m sure she never wore it again.

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My neighbor grows the loveliest roses in town.  She gave my Dearly Beloved these to give to me for Mother’s Day.  She’d cut them just before the rains came.  They smell divine!

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Happy Mother’s Day to my daughters, moms of our five wonderful grandsons.

Happy Mother’s Day to EVERYONE, mothers of the heart.  You, too, Mother Earth!

 And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see–or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read . – Alice Walker

Backroads With BroJoe: Sampson County, North Carolina

When my brother Joe travels the winding backroads of eastern North Carolina where several generations of our family lived, he often sends photos of the dishes he tries at some of the local restaurants–the ones where no part of the hog goes unused.  He likes to mess around with my gag reflex.  Chittlins, cracklin’ bread, bone marrow… get the drift?  (I’m not sure if I mean literally or figuratively here.)

This time, the photo he sent back surprised me.  I remember visiting farmer relatives in that part of the state when I was a small child.  Perhaps that is why I found this photograph so hauntingly lovely and nostalgic.

Than again, maybe it’s because I didn’t find myself staring at a plate of brains and eggs.  I promise that you won’t, either.  Enjoy.

Backroads: Sampson County, North Carolina.

Get the Picture?

When I was born, one of my mother’s aunts (the one after whom I was named) began a photo album which she gave  to me when I was 13. . . a very wise move, since by then I was all knobby knees, frizzy perms,  braces, and terminal camera-shyness.

The album was a lovely idea.

The photos, all black and white, were taken in the days of boxy Brownie cameras and one-time usage flashbulbs which bubbled and popped and temporarily blinded a generation of startled babies.

I realized later that, although the album was full of photos,  it wasn’t exactly a pictorial diary of my childhood.  My aunt lived in another town, so the occasions that she visited and remembered to bring her camera weren’t that frequent.  A dozen or so photos of me as a baby show me in a sunsuit lying on a blanket on the front porch, along with another dozen or so of me as a toddler in a snowsuit.  A couple of pages were full of my cousin Margaret and me about 3 or 4, wearing the same plaid dresses in every picture.  After that, it skipped to a spring when I was 7 or 8.   I can tell that it was Easter by the corsage pinned to my jacket (which was called a “topper”) and my sporty white tam.

Welcome to the pre-digital camera age.

I got through childhood in four outfits.

When Dearly Beloved and I bought an expensive 35mm camera, digital cameras were already becoming popular, but we were purists.  Besides, DB was mightily impressed that big green camera case on a strap around his neck made him look so official that a press pass would have been superfluous.  He assumed the role of Photographer Pompous Presidentus.

He bought a magnifying lens after an impressive demonstration by the sales clerk allowed  him to read the Do not leave child unattended warning on a shopping cart left in the back of the parking lot across from the store.   I doubt that the lens cap was ever removed from that sucker.

Nevertheless, DB’s photography sessions mimicked my aunt’s except that his rarely included people.  The envelope of photos he’d probably have called Cardinal, would have been more aptly identified as Red Dot on a Branch.

The camera broke, the manufacturer went out of business, and we bought a Point and Shoot in which DB has absolutely no interest.  BUT, even though he protested when Good Egg Son gave him an iPhone for his birthday, he has surprised us by becoming an iPhone Fiend, regularly e-mailing pictures, especially to our kids.

Many are taken while walking on the beach.  He called this one Mother and Daughter in the subject line of his e-mail and included a note that he’d asked the woman’s permission before he snapped it.

Slacker explained the marijuana haze just ahead of him as he walked back to his car.

DB is merciless about sending pictures of sailboats and ocean waves to our son and SIL’s… during their working hours, of course.  They’re clearly recognizable as boats, not dots on the sea.   This one looks like an oil canvas to me.

Here’s  my current favorite.  He took it a couple of weeks ago, looking out the sunroom windows.  He thought of it as Reflections.

Thinking back to that red dot on the branch, I’d call it  Enlightened.

I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.
John Steinbeck

How can a society that exists on instant mashed potatoes, packaged cake mixes, frozen dinners, and instant cameras teach patience to its young?
Paul Sweeney

Anyone ‘Comin Thro The Rye’?

A British friend–the same friend who introduced me to Pimm’s Cup at a most memorable luncheon –wrote that she and her husband are hosting a party on January 25.  I love hearing about what is going on with her and I found this one especially fascinating.

The print on her e-mail was small and I read it as B-U-M-S night supper.  Her menu– Cullen Skink soup, haggis, bashed neaps and taties– didn’t disabuse me of that notion until I googled the various dishes to see what they were.  Turns out it’s a BURNS Night Supper to commemorate the birthdate of beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns.  His admirers have been holding these suppers for over 200 years, but don’t feel too bad if you have never attended one.  Meal-wise, you haven’t missed much; they serve the same thing every year.

As for the haggis, several of the websites I visited advised one to “eat it, don’t think about what’s in it.”  Easier said than done, I imagine, since haggis consists of sheep’s offal, tripe, suet, oatmeal, and spices cooked in a sheep’s stomach.  Traditionally it’s boiled, but I found baked and even deep-fried recipes… as if the cooking method is what is troubling about the dish.

I don’t think A-1, Heinz 57, or catsup are up to the challenge either.

Having a Burns Night Supper without haggis would probably be worse than having a wiener roast without hot dogs.  After all, has anyone penned an eight-verse ode to a weenie.  (Perhaps it is worth mentioning that Burns also wrote six verses in Address to a Toothache, so an appropriate excuse for not eating the haggis might be that you are in need of a root canal.)

Yesterday’s e-mail from my friend sounded a bit anxious.  Some of her guests are “finding all kinds of excuses” not to eat haggis, including one who claims an allergy to onions.  My friend doesn’t understand it.  She said,  “We used to boil up most of that stuff for our dogs and they seemed to like it.”

The neaps and taties–turnips or rutabagas and potatoes–sound divine by comparison.  I asked whether she’d considered one of the recipes out there for vegetarian haggis, but she fears flipping Robbie in his grave with the vegetarian substitution.  You can see why.  The man was definitely a carnivore.   Here’s his Selkirk Grace which is always recited at the suppers:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Even if there is not be a bagpiper in the group, Burns’ music should be a part of the evening and it always ends with Auld Lang Syne, which Burns loved, even if he didn’t write it.  Male guests wear kilts; it’s definitely a tartan night.  I’m not sure about the women.  How about something in a red, red rosy color?

There are speeches, toasts, recitations, songs, and plenty to drink–Scotch, of course, and perhaps wine as well.  Dessert, my friend says, will be shortbread and Cranachan–raspberries, cream, honey, Scotch, and toasted oatmeal are the main ingredients.  For awhile there she was considering clootie dumplings, but dismissed them as being “awfully stodgy.”
Too bad it wasn’t Burns who said that life is uncertain; eat dessert first.
My friend is holding her Burns Night Supper at her home, which was built about 300 years before Burns was even born.  (I don’t think she’d mind my sharing this picture.  She sent it to me last spring when we were trading gardening photos.  Note the thatched roof.)
If it’s too late for you to plan your own Burns Night Supper this year, how about a simpler commemoration? How about a nice bowl of cock a leekie soup and a toast with a raised tumbler of Scotch?  It’s exactly what it sounds like: chicken and leek soup with barley.
At least listen to Eddi Reader’s rendition of a favorite poem.  This is from her album of the songs of Robert Burns.

The Poke Salad Saga

Here’s another one of Dearly Beloved’s stories from his college days on the cattle ranch.

POKE SALAD

Yes, poke salad is real.  I had never had it unt il my junior year in college.  I was staying at a boarding house in the small town near the cattle farm where I worked.  After my morning classes I would go back to the boarding house and have lunch in the dining room with the locals.  Mr. and Mrs. S. ran the boarding house and turned the dining room into a family style restaurant at mealtimes.  Mrs. S. was an excellent cook and was well known for “down home” meals.

Prior to running the boarding house, Mr. and Mrs. S. ran a small restaurant in town, and Mrs. S. also cooked for the jail where Mr. S. was the jailer, working for the sheriff.  Mr. S. was a lazy man.  I’m not sure why they went into the boarding house business.  Maybe being the jailer was too much like work for Mr. S.  In any event, Mrs. S. did all the work at the boarding house, from cleaning the rooms, buying the groceries to cooking and serving the meals.  She was as industrious as Mr. S. was lazy.

She was slightly plump, wore a hairnet over her salt and pepper hair that was generally in a bun.  She always wore an apron except when she sat in one of the rocking chairs on the wrap around front porch.  This happened most nights after she had cooked three meals for 5 to 15 or so at each sitting, cleaned the house and taken care of the other chores.  She did this all with a smile, but there was a furrow in her forehead that never left.  In the evening, when everything was quiet and her work done, she would take off her apron and almost ceremoniously fold it over her rocking chair’s arm and sit peacefully.

There were five boarding rooms with two or three occupied by regulars and the others by short-timers that would stay for one night up to a month or so.  She was careful not to rent to troublemakers, but there were several who had checkered pasts.  Mr. S. was quick to declare his friendliness with Sheriff C., who lived around the corner, so there was never any real trouble.  Mrs. S. was nice to everyone.  Not so much, Mr. S.

Mr. S. was a big man, well over 6-feet.  He had broad shoulders, large hands, but looked soft, and he was.  He had red hair, a large hooknose and always wore a 10-gallon cowboy hat, except when he was eating.  He had no teeth.  Well, he had some, but never put them in.  Eating was somewhat of a problem, but he accomplished it nonetheless.  He was partial to Mrs. S.’s biscuits with honey and chicken and dumplings.  He constantly smoked Pall Mall cigarettes through an FDR type cigarette holder.  There was nothing else about him that would remind you of FDR, other than he was always sitting.  His favorite TV program was “The Rifleman”, which he never missed.  He was fond of saying “Wooo!” about things he liked, which he would say about most anything the Rifleman did.

After lunch each day, I would change clothes and go work at the farm.  One afternoon I was trying to build a new feed trough for the cattle.  I wasn’t having much success.  The incessant cackling of a bantam rooster increased my exasperation.  Just when I slammed the hammer into my thumb, the rooster ran across the yard.  He was about 20 yards away, but seemed like he was in my ear, cackling louder than ever.  Now it sounded more like a loud laugh.  I turned and in one motion threw the hammer at him.  The hammerhead hit him in his head.  He was dead immediately.

The rooster was wild and had hung around the barn living off of whatever bugs and seed he could find.  Apparently he had not done too good a job of it because he was skinny.  Nevertheless, I thought Mrs. S. could put him to good use, so I put him in a burlap bag and headed to the boarding house.

I arrived several hours before I normally did and Mrs. S. was in the kitchen.  She was delighted when I showed her the rooster.  She had planned for supper to be a redo of lunch.  In addition to Mr. S., there were others who would have supper that also had lunch there.  She was ingenious at leftovers, but there was only so much even she could do.  And she took pride in her meals.

She immediately began work on the rooster and asked me to go outside and pick some poke.  I had no idea what she was talking about.  She said, “It looks like a cross between dandelions and turnips.  It’s wild.  You’ll know it when you see it.”  Outside I went.  I knew it when I saw it, picked a grocery bag full and brought it in.

She said she didn’t need my help any more.  She would call me for supper.  I went upstairs to study.

Dinner came and she had a nice crowd of about 10 or so.  The menu was chicken and dumplings cooked with more butter, pepper and salt than normal.  The green side was poke salad.

When I sat down, Mrs. S. put a finger to her lips signaling me to say nothing.  The normal chatter included compliments about Mrs. S.’s cooking and this night was no different.  Mr. S. let out a “Wooo” when he tasted the chicken and dumplings.  She had worked magic cooking that tough skinny old rooster.  We had homemade chocolate pie for dessert.

Later that evening, I went out.  As I drove away I saw Mrs. S. sitting peacefully by herself on the front porch, her apron folded neatly on her rocker.

Cowed!

I’ve mentioned before that Dearly Beloved ran a cattle farm one year when he was a full-time college student.  His stories about that period are alternately funny, sad, and amazing.  It was a memorable year for him.

He has kept the book he used to consult about raising Angus cattle and it holds a place of honor on a shelf alongside a photo of our family at a Cubs game and a purple pencil cup that daughter Pogo made for him when she was in kindergarten.

(He also holds on to at least a half-dozen broken briefcases, his entry numbers from races he ran years ago, and several pairs of old tennis shoes “for working out in the yard.” But that’s beside the point.)

This video of a Utah jazz band playing for a herd of cattle in France is familiar to about 4,000,000+ people, but when someone sent it to me again recently, I showed it to DB, thinking he would like it, too.  The video links are being temperamental, but you can see the ‘official’ version on the band’s website.

He was not impressed.

“That’s nothing.  I used to yell ‘Hoooooo, COW’ and 300 cows would come running.”

I’ve been telling him that he should write a book about that year.  He has written a few stories and maybe I’ll post some if he agrees.  It’s a shame he has no pictures from that time.  I suppose I could video him doing his cow call.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Miss Piggy came running.

City Lights, Pretty Lights

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“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

’tis indeed the season of miracles… a squirrel, a mouse, and a rabbit pictured here and not a curse word in sight. . . !

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Abridgement

While we were in West Virginia for our By-gosh-we-actually-pulled-this-off Thanksgiving weekend, the whole family visited the New River Gorge Bridge Visitors’ Center, run by the National Park Service.  We had driven across the bridge to get to our destination, but to really appreciate the marvel of engineering, the bridge has to be seen from below.  For instance, here is the view when we were crossing the bridge.  It didn’t feel or sound like a bridge, so as long as I kept my eyes shut or straight ahead (after making sure Dearly Beloved had both hands on the steering wheel) I didn’t get bridge-o-phobia.  

The strip of road visible in the photo below is actually part of the bridge.  The steps are a pathway to an observation deck…

…where I took this picture. To clarify, cars ride atop the bridge.  That ^^^^ section just underneath it is open for walking (it’s even handicapped accessible) should strolling on an two-ft. wide, 876-ft. high catwalk for 1/4 mile strike your fancy.  My fancy remained unstruck.  It’s the fifth highest vehicular bridge in the world.  The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial could be stacked atop each other and pass underneath with enough clearance to spare for you to hop aboard.

The gorge was so deep that this is as close as I got to the river:

The hardier members of our group took a second hike, this one on Kaymoor Miners Trail. which took them down to the New River and the ghost town of Kaymoor, one of about 60 towns built along the New River after the (1873) completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad opened the area to coal mining.  Everything in the towns was owned by the coal companies– schools, churches, saloons, pool halls, stores, scrip*, theaters, houses, as well as the coke ovens, tipples, and other structures used in mining.  In reality, there were four Kaymoors- two in the gorge, one on the rim of the canyon, and one where the south pier of the arch bridge is located.

The coal camp towns were so remote that when coal became scarce in a vein, that town was simply abandoned.  The ruins of the ghost town my family visited are now owned by the National Park Service and were reached by a strenuous trail which ended in  a 821- stairstep descent.  (And what goes down, DEFINITELY wants to get back up!)

In 1978, the National Park Service took over about 53 miles along the river to protect and maintain the area.  The cleanup and management efforts have made it a popular site for whitewater rafting.  The ruins of the towns are barely visible now, having been reclaimed by the forests.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the supermarket cashier who overheard my conversation about our pending trip to “Nowhere, West Virginia” and how she told me that she was from that area.  A few days ago, I was in her checkout line again. She remembered me and asked how our weekend had gone.  She particularly wanted to know if we’d seen the New River Gorge Bridge. I said that we had and were very impressed with it.

“I was in high school in 1977 when they opened that bridge,” she said, smiling broadly.  “I marched across it on opening day, twirling my baton.”  

I know nothing about this woman’s life other than what is etched on her face.  I hope that one day she will tell her grandchildren of that day.  She can show them the West Virginia quarter, which has a rendering of that bridge.   The next time my own grandchildren visit, I want to take them to the supermarket and introduce them to the lady who marched across the bridge on the very first day it opened.   Her story and her smile deserve an encore.

We build too many walls and not enough bridges.
Isaac Newton

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More about coal mining along the New River Gorge:

Photo website showing some of the towns and buildings.

Kaymoor site with photos of ruins.

*Scrip was the term for the “truck system” whereby non-transferable vouchers were used to pay the workers.  The vouchers could be used only at the company-owned stores.  It was this system which inspired the song, Sixteen Tons, believed to have been written by former coal miner and folk singer George S. Davis.

You load sixteen tons what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.