Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Bounty in the Bramble Patch

My wife's grandfather raised hogs on a small farm in North Mississippi. His was one of the last small-time commercial operations--he never had more than a hundred or so pigs on his place at any one time and he raised them pretty much the way hogs had been raised for thousands of years. He didn't have fancy individual faring pens--just a few scattered three-foot high hog houses on five or six fenced acres. For nearly fifty years he had driven his pick-up each day into Memphis to pick up garbage can loads of restaurant refuse with which to slop his hogs the next morning. He supplemented the slop with feed corn, or vice versa--I could never figure out which. The slop contained every vegetable, meat, and bread imaginable, to which he added water and filled handmade wooden troughs, out of which the hogs greedily and noisily fed. The smells and sounds of a cold, dark winter morning on the Cannon farm is a memory I will likely take to my grave.

After the hogs had cleaned the troughs, an inspection would often uncover forks, spoons, and knives from the restaurants that had inadvertantly made their way into the garbage. The restaurants wouldn't take them back, and while they may have never had many luxuries in their lives, the Cannons never wanted for tableware. The haul over 50 years had yielded numerous complete sets, several of which were given away to families less fortunate.

Of course, every vegetable seed that entered into a hog's confederate end, exited from the yankee end and was deposited in its own mound of the world's best organic fertilizer. The ground in the hog lot stayed bare as the face of the moon, however. Any seed that sprouted was immediately whacked by a porcine weed-eater.

When Mr. Cannon died in the late winter of '91, his family sold off all of his hogs and the well-fertilized hog lot reverted to a bramble patch. Later that summer, one of Mrs. Cannon's granddaughters brought her three children for a visit. After the compulsory hugs and kisses were endured, the boys ran immediately to explore the jungle that had grown up in the hog lot. Not much later they returned, proudly carrying a cornucopia of vegetables--squash, tomatoes, watermelon, peas and beans of several varieties. They were summarily accused of raiding a neighbor's garden and were within a hair's breadth of suffering their daily spanking, for which they had just provided the not-necessarily-required justification, before they finally convinced their mother to come see the "wild garden" in the former hog lot. Without the daily intensive grazing by the hogs, the last of the hog droppings had provided a final gift.

I was always amazed at the care Mr. Cannon took with his hogs. He knew when any one of them was missing at the hog trough and would go to any length to rescue a pig in distress. I like to think of that bounty in the bramble patch as nature's (and the hogs') final tribute to the man.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Goodbye, Dear Friend

She was the grandmother of the love of my life and the matriarchal head of my wife's close family. Last week she went to be with the Lord. She was 94, nearly twice my age, and she was one of my dearest friends. When I first met her I was a freshman in college, and quite convinced I knew more about the world than anyone my age and most everyone else. You see, I was a voracious reader and had traveled--I was a man of the world. Mrs. Cannon was the hard-working wife of a Mississippi hog farmer and I made the mistake of underestimating her at our first meeting. After that first weekend at her breakfast table I never made that mistake again. She was one of the smartest women I have ever known, and she kept her sharp mind until her last breath. In her I found a kindred spirit of sorts. We shared a love for reading and birds.

She and her husband were charter members of the Greatest Generation and I instantly liked them both. They were a study in contrasts. He was taciturn and a focused perfectionist. She was talkative and related family stories that were the definition of free association. By the time I met them they had been a team for over 40 years and had their farming life down to a practiced science. Despite the fact that I hung all over their precious granddaughter like a cheap suit, they accepted me from the start and treated me like another son. I later learned that I was just the latest in a long line of young men and women they had befriended, fed, raised, disciplined, and set-straight. During the Second World War, army units camped near their homestead and Mr. Cannon regularly brought home soldiers (young boys, really, away from their homes for the first time) for a home-cooked meal.

They had raised three sons, the oldest of whom had the twin girls my buddy and I had double-dated through high school. When the girls matriculated at Memphis State they lived their freshman year on their grandparents' farm 20 miles outside of Memphis. I burned up the asphalt between Oxford and Memphis on a regular basis and the price for my room and board on the Cannon farm was some of the hardest work I had ever done, or ever did. The education I received from those southern survivors of the Great Depression was invaluable. They were, frankly, poor in possessions. But they were proud and rich in their self-sufficience. Mr. Cannon died 15 years ago, at the wheel of his truck, hauling slop for his hogs.

Saturday we buried Mrs. Cannon next to her husband of 59 years in a small country cemetery in Northwest Mississippi, near where they were born, reared, and married. A steady down-pour ceased long enough for her family to gather graveside and share. There were tears, but there was also laughter at remembrances of a special couple whose lives continue to influence generations after them. Her three sons, a nephew, my son, and I carried her casket from the hearse to the opened grave across a soggy ground. It was fitting that we toiled in the mud for her--she had done the same for us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Deja Vu, All Over Again

Watched a documentary last night on Reagan's strategy for defeating the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher said it best when she toasted Reagan for putting freedom "on the offensive." It is interesting to note, in light of current events, that the actions Reagan took (rebuilding our conventional forces, deploying more capable nuclear forces in Europe, SDI, imposing unilateral economic sanctions, and supporting anti-communist insurgencies in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Poland), were wildly unpopular at home and abroad. A couple of years into his first term, Reagan's poll numbers made Jimmy Carter's look good. In his second term, there was talk of impeachment. But Reagan, to the chagrin of the Washington Wimps and the Soviets, stuck to his guns. In 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Two years later the Evil Empire crumbled to pieces like the Berlin Wall, hammered to fragments at the hands of millions yearning to live free.

I grew up watching the horizon for bright flashes and mushroom clouds, and learning to duck and cover in my school classrooms. My early training in the military was focused on defending against a tsunami-like Red Army conventional attack. I remember, clearly, sitting in a set of bleachers with fellow new lieutenants in training as a stern captain caused us to envision a Soviet Motorized Rifle Division attacking us from our front in wave after inexorable wave of infantry fighting vehicles and tanks supported by deluges of high explosive and chemical artillery rounds. At the end of his 30-minute imaginary tour de force, he paused and asked, "Any questions?" One of my buddies summed up our collective thoughts with the question, "Sir, how do they treat prisoners?"

In those days nobody believed that the Soviets could be beaten. They had the advantage of a ruthless ideology under totalitarian rule backed by overwhelming force. Heck, I didn't think we could beat them short of an all-out thermo-nuclear exchange that would have bounced each other's rubble pile until Paraguay was the new world super-power. But Reagan, and his faithful core of true believers, placed faith in the righteousness of freedom and in the incredible strength of free people, and bankrupted the Kremlin.

I can't help but think that history is repeating itself. Most of us don't recognize this because we don't care to study history--but that's grist for another post. Today we face an enemy that most commentators and many timid Americans believe is impossible to defeat. Our president's warfighting policies are unpopular. Listen, I'm the most jingoistic and patriotic American Empire-builder on the North American tectonic plate and I have a hard time following W's logic sometimes. But, the alternative to keeping freedom on the offensive is just too frightening to countenance.

And, oh by the way, while we are slapping at pesky islamo-fascist terrorists, we had better keep a fist tightly closed and coiled to strike the rapidly arming totalitarian masters of 1.4 billion Chinese.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Play with Honor

I haven't paid that much attention to the Winter Olympics this year, and from what I hear, I'm not alone. I did catch some news this morning about a women's snowboarder who was so far ahead of her competition that she decided to show off short of the finish line...and fell. She lost the race, and the gold. Thirty years from now, her grandaughter will climb up onto her lap, turn her innocent little eyes toward her grandmother and sweetly ask, "Holy Cow, Grandma, what were you thinking?!?"

I actually take a great deal of not-so-secret delight when an athlete shows off and hurts himself or blows a game. I absolutely hate the in-your-face, showboating that dominates sports today. Not surprisingly, you rarely hear the word "sportsmanship" anymore. Used to be that HOW you played the GAME was as important as winning.

When I was occupying space at Ole Miss thirty years ago, my future Marine officer buddies and I had a team in the intramural softball league. We wore fatigue covers (Marines don't call headgear caps or hats) starched and ironed in the inspection-ready fashion called "highly blocked." So we called our team...Highly Blocked. One game that sticks out in my mind was against a team from the law school. I even remember their name: Paper Chase (for the law school movie out at that time). What I really remember about that game was their foul-mouthed, taunting pitcher. Frankly, I had never experienced anything like it. He ran his filthy, insulting mouth the entire game. I bet the guy is a very successful ambulance chaser or politician today--I don't know and don't care. What I do know is, people like him give the rest of the human race a bad name. His short-term tactic was effective--we were rattled by his ranting and they beat us in a close game. But, and here's the lesson for anyone playing sports today, the long-term strategic effect of his actions can't help but be detrimental to his activities today. I'm quite secure in the belief that anyone who ever PLAYED with that guy, wouldn't WORK with him. If he were the most effective criminal defense lawyer in the land, I wouldn't let him represent me...even pro bono.

It's Saturday morning and I bet the guy is sitting at home wondering why no one ever invites him to play golf anymore.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Shotgun Stupids

I have an opinion about everything. I just make it a point not to share my uninformed ones with others, and thereby avoid looking like an idiot more than I do normally. I'm a hunter, so I have an informed opinion to share regarding what is fast becoming known, by the most unoriginal generation in history, as Quail-gate.

I'll not defend Mr. Cheney here for his hunting accident. Nor will I join the great unwashed who have taken the opportunity to shoot at him in the wake of his unfortunate wounding of a fellow hunter. There, but by the grace of God, go I. But, I will take the opportunity to offer an observation regarding the hyperventilation and uninformed postulation of the fourth estate concerning an activity about which they, nearly to a man, show absolutely no clue.

I am offended by those whose first reaction was to summon and display down-the-nose visaged revulsion at the mere suggestion of anyone hunting to begin with. It galls me no end for anyone who has never experienced the solemnity of an ethical hunt to disdainfully comment on the activity. And for the television news pretty boys (Spiro Agnew's "effete intellectual snobs" descriptor fits well here) to try to "report" on the technical aspects of firearms and ammunition without even the basics of understanding drives me straight up the nearest vertical surface. Of course, I shouldn't be at all suprised by this glaring lack of understanding by the press--I have a long-running frustration with people in general, and news broadcasters in particular, who demonstrate a lack of even the most basic understanding of anything to do with the self-sacrificing military guarantors of their press freedoms. Seems that anything to do with a weapon of any sort is just not worthy of study by civilized intellectuals. Tell that to Leonardo da Vinci.

If a microphone-waving newsy accidentally knocks out an interviewee's tooth someday, I'm gonna be all over him like pokes on a porcupine.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I have been experiencing a strange sensation over the past several weeks. It felt like anticipation--like I was supposed to be expecting something, but I couldn't figure out what. Last night I had a dream about checking in at a new duty station and this morning I know what I have been feeling. I'm expecting my next set of PCS orders. I've been in my present home for two and half years, and I have an overwhelming urge to start packing.

The itinerary of my entire life has been at the whim of the Department of Defense. I was born at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando during my father's first enlistment. By the time I graduated high school, I had attended 13 different schools and lived in 12 different houses in four different states and two foreign countries. Then, I really started travelling. Eighteen years as an Air Force brat was only preparatory training for the next three decades as a Marine. At the close of my military career, the count of homes in which I had lived during my life was over 40. And that didn't count the dozens of temporary quarters I occupied on deployments and assignments.

When you move as often as I have, you learn not to accumulate possessions. Removing your life's stuff from boxes and setting up household becomes a ritual you can do in your sleep. By the time my wife (she was an Air Force brat, as well) and I were in our 40's, we had packing and unpacking down to a science. Her goal at every new duty station was to break the previous record for time took to set up our new home. Once she went 36 hours straight without sleeping and had our new home set up and decorated like we had been there for years. I was often able to avoid helping her in any meaningful way by claiming "they" wanted me to "get right to work" at my new job.

Our tumbleweed life (and the transient life of our military cohorts) also taught us not to establish too close of a relationship with friends and neighbors. It was painful enough saying goodbye to close acquaintances, and that was a constant exercise.

It is an unfortunate state to which I have been conditioned. As much as I want to put down roots and make close friends, I don't know if it is possible anymore. My vagabond nature is too deeply ingrained.

Where's the newspaper? I need to check out the real estate section.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Remembering Jimmy

My Uncle Jimmy passed away suddenly this past week. He was 64. His memorial service was held yesterday afternoon in Baton Rouge. Prior to the service I visited with my aunt and my cousins, and listening to those three women remember Jimmy filled me with an overwhelming sense of regret. I hadn't spent more than a few hours with Jimmy over the 45 years that he was in our family--I have always been too busy with own life and career, shamefully, to spend much time with even my own family. I knew I liked him immensely, I just didn't know why. My only solid remembrance of the man was that he treated me as an adult a long time before I deserved it. As I listened to their remembrances I learned that I had missed really knowing a man who shared many of my own passions and viewpoints. I heard about a man whose fascination with nature and love of country surprisingly surpassed my own. I heard about a man whose exellence as a son, a husband, a father, and a teacher would have made him an ideal mentor in my life.

I can only guess how hard this is on my aunt and cousins, and my loss is only a fraction of that felt by them. But, in a way, my loss is greater than theirs. They shared his life, and I missed out.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Still waiting on my honorary Mensa membership card to arrive in the mail, in recognition of my previous contributions to scientific knowledge. Maybe the fact that I have classified a new malady will get their membership department off their collective duffs. Most of us who live in the northern hemisphere have been aware of the affliction for the majority of our lives. And those of us who live in the northern and western hemisphere are the most acutely susceptible. It isn't as much a sickness as it is a general malaise that creeps into our bones as our bodies are trying to digest the last of the Super Bowl party guacamole dip. I'm referring of course to Februphobia--Fear of the Month of February. The lethargy accompanying the onset of Februphobia has overcome me so intensely this year that it has taken me a full quarter of the month to muster sufficient energy to write about it.

It is fairly obvious that this disease has been recognized for thousands of years. Furthermore, it is obvious that it is genetic. Why else would our calendar only grant 28 days to this month if it were not for the inborn desire to shorten the suffering associated with it?

As a public service, and in recognition that many of you may not fully understand what it is about February that you should fear/hate, I will forthwith posit on the vile month's demerits.

1. There is no real football played in February. "Aha!", you say. "The Super Bowl is played in February." That isn't real football. That's advertising run amok while two nervous football teams play at a level of competence not seen since the beginning of the exhibition season.

2. Duck season is over. I have now entered into the 10 month period of my life known as "Waiting for the next duck season." The last 2 or 3 months of this period find me in a near euphoric state as the weather cools and my eyes begin scanning the sky for signs of migration. The first month of this period plunges me into a depth of despair only fully understood by those of us who spend exorbitant amounts of money and drive ridiculous distances to stand in waist deep freezing water.

3. The season for speckled trout is closed in Florida. When my Number 1 son and I were discussing this fact the other day, he snidely remarked, "Like you catch any trout big enough to keep when the season is open." Immediately following the posting of this blog, I have an appointment with my lawyer to discuss changing my will.

4. Basketball. Nuff said.

5. Hockey. Ditto.

6. Valentines Day. I once remarked at a social gathering around this time of the year that my lovely bride and I didn't pay much attention to Valentines Day, because in our home "we treat every day like Valentines Day." Uproarious and near insane laughter ensued and I was beginning to think that I might have a future as a stand-up comic, until I noticed that my wife was the one doing all the laughing.

7. The weather. Now, I know that living in Florida does not give me the same right to complain about the weather as those of you living in the arctic reaches (anywhere north of Interstate 10) of our great land, but I reserve the right to grumble nonetheless. It is just so doggone inconvenient to have to wear long-sleeved shirts!

There is just one thing I like about February. Baseball season has not started yet, and it is too cold to actually have to watch paint dry.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Beast of Bishop's Bottom

I was channel surfing the other night and caught about 45 seconds of a program about "Big Foot." I have traditionally made it a point not to watch these kinds of programs for the same reason I don't watch horror films. I have an active imagination and don't need any of that kind of stuff stuck in the folds of my grey matter. I spent a lot of time in the infantry, by myself, in unfamiliar territory, in the dark. Even now, as a hunter, I am in the woods a lot pre-sunup and post-sundown. The last thing I need is a memory of some movie's maniacal monster fueling my imagination. Anyway, the Big Foot story prompted a memory of a story my Dad once told me.

As I remember the story, near my folks' hometown was a particularly inpenetrable tract of land called Bishop's Bottom. A local legend of sorts had persisted about a bigfoot type creature that lived in Bishop's Bottom, and was the grist for conversation at the regular meeting of my Dad's breakfast group, the Liars' Club. Several members of the Liars' Club hatched a plan to play a practical joke on a mutual friend who lived in a subdivision not far from Bishop's Bottom. They scrounged an old paint can and attached a length of horsehair to the bottom. When pulled between thumb and forefinger, the horsehair produced a blood-curdling screech that was amplified by the open end of the paint can.

One evening after dark, they crept into the woods between the subdivision and Bishop's Bottom and, after a giggling fit at the thought of the probable consequences of the action, commenced to give voice to the Beast of Bishop's Bottom. After completing a sufficient number of screeches and another round of giggling, they began to pick their way back out of the woods. Their careful creep became a panicked rout when from behind them, deeper in Bishop's Bottom, came a screeching answer to their calls.

Suffice it to say, debate still rages as to whether the screech that they heard was the Beast, or produced by someone playing a prank on the pranksters.