Feeds:
Posts
Comments

CANEBRAKE

I was elated when the 2015 Bacopa Literary Review accepted this short story for publication. Now I want to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it. For more information on Bacopa, visit: http://writersalliance.org/bacopa-literary-review. You can order a copy of the 2015 issue through Amazon. It has more short stories as well as poetry and creative non-fiction. Happy reading!

Cattle Gap

Cattle Gap

Mario stepped off the school bus into the late August heat. “Remember, no TV till I get home,” Aunt Ginny, the driver, told him. “Make a sandwich and do your homework. I’ll be home in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aunt Ginny was his foster mother, not his aunt, but he didn’t want to call her “Mama.” He had a mother. He’d just finished the first week of sixth grade, but he felt so lost. Changing classes was a new experience, and there were so many new faces. He wore nicer clothes than he used to, but old classmates still treated him with contempt.

He should have gone to middle school last year, but he had flunked fourth grade. Not because he was stupid. He’d missed too many days. Last year, he did better. He learned to get himself up in the morning, even if his mother overslept or wasn’t home. He missed his mother.

Mario checked the mail and found a letter from his father in California. “Dear Mario,” it began. “I hope this finds you well. I am quite good, as is Cissy, and the kids. The social worker was here today to do the house check. She said she saw no problem with you coming here. It will take awhile for the paperwork to get to Florida, so we have to be patient. I’m saving money for a plane ticket to come get you.”

A joyful bark interrupted him. Aunt Ginny’s dog Skeeter bounded down the driveway and knocked the letter from his hands. Skeeter always came to greet him. Mario wondered what Skeeter would do after he left. By then, there might be new foster children to greet.

“Hey, Skeeter,” Mario stuck the letter into his backpack to read later. He paused at the cattle gap. This was a relic from the days when the old place had been a farm. The cattle gap was a grate made from railroad rails laid horizontally across a small ditch. Cows would not venture to cross, but it was no barrier for vehicles and most boys.

The ditch held a little water from yesterday’s thunderstorm. It looked like a good place for snakes to hide. Aunt Ginny had warned him to beware of snakes. What he feared even more than snakes was slipping and falling between the rails. He gripped his backpack, inhaled deeply, and balanced on the first rail.  Safely across, he let his breath out. He had never lived in the country before, and there were so many things to worry about.

Aunt Ginny’s farm now grew pine trees. Halfway up the driveway, Skeeter started barking again and dove into the palmettos that grew among the trees. Mario heard a great thrashing noise. Something big was in there. What could it be? A bobcat? A coyote? What if it was a bear?

“Skeeter! Come back!” But Skeeter was too busy to obey.  Mario set his books down and followed. A fine net settled over his face and he cringed. He brushed and sputtered to get the cobweb off. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail and brushed frantically over his head and shoulders. Could the spider be on him? It would be one of those enormous yellow ones that spun great webs between the trees. Aunt Ginny hated them and killed any she found in her yard. So they hid in the woods to ensnare unsuspecting boys.

He stepped forward. Skeeter stopped barking. Mario eyes darted around and looked down. Skeeter sniffed at a large gopher tortoise which tried to run from him. Its short legs flailed against a palmetto frond, which rattled against its neighbors, creating a noise way out of proportion to the size of the creature.

Mario let out a nervous laugh. “All this fuss over a little ole turtle!” He poked it with a stick and watched the gopher’s head and limbs draw into its shell. Maybe this would make a good pet. He carried it to the house, found an old washtub, and filled a dish with water. He’d ask Aunt Ginny what they ate. He never had a pet before.

Mario went back for his backpack and let himself into the house. He fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of iced tea before settling down at the kitchen table with his homework. Then he remembered his father’s letter. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. It’s been so long. You must be nearly a man by now.” His mother had called him her “little man.” He had taken care of her when she couldn’t take care of herself. After they put him in foster care, everyone treated him like a child. His first foster parents even made him go to day care. Aunt Ginny wasn’t so bad. She fussed over him, but she also gave him independence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a father to you,” the letter went on. “I didn’t know how things were with your mother.” Mario winced. He didn’t like people saying things about his mother. “You see, after we split up, every time I went to see you, we’d fight so bad, I thought it was best to just stay away. I thought sending money every month was enough.” Mario had not been aware of any money. His mother said his father was dead. He had a vague memory of a man arguing with his mother, but he was not sure if that had been his father or a stepfather.

His musings were interrupted by Skeeter’s frantic barking. Mario rushed out. There was a new noise, an intense buzzing, like that of a windup toy out of control. And there, on the ground, not two yards from Skeeter’s nose, was a coiled rattlesnake.

He dared not panic. He called Skeeter, who only kept barking and circling the snake, keeping a distance of four or five feet between them. What should he do? Call for help? But Skeeter could be dead before it arrived. His pounding heart drowned out the sounds of both snake and dog. Mario crept up behind Skeeter and grabbed his collar. He dragged him up the steps and through the front door. Skeeter was an outside dog and Aunt Ginny didn’t let him into the house, but this was an exception.

After the rattling noise ceased, Mario looked out and saw the snake crawling across the yard toward the back of the house. What if it got in the house? He ran to the shed and found a hoe. He tried to sneak up on the snake, but it turned back toward him and started to coil. Mario raised the hoe as high as he could and brought it down onto the snake’s neck with enough force to drive it into the ground. The body twisted every which way, but its neck was broken. Mario chopped with the hoe until he severed the head from the body. He trembled back to the porch and collapsed on the steps.

Then he remembered Skeeter and let him out. Skeeter immediately returned to the snake, but when it didn’t react to his barking, he began to sniff. Mario jumped to his feet. Maybe it couldn’t bite, but it still had venom on its fangs. He scooped up the head with the hoe and buried it in the garden. Only now did he examine the body. He’d never seen a real rattlesnake before and didn’t know they were so pretty. This one had diamond-shaped markings on reddish skin. He had seen belts and hat bands made from snake skins. The body was thicker than his arm and might be enough for more than one belt.

Warily, he picked it up. The skin was not slimy, but smooth and cool, like glass. Mario carried it to the back porch and got a knife from the kitchen. Although he had never skinned anything before, he’d seen it done. He cut off the rattle and put it in his pocket. Then he carefully separated the skin from the carcass, which he buried in the garden. He stretched the skin on an old board and nailed it down.

Only then did he truly appreciate his feat. The snake had been as long as he was tall. He shook the rattle in his pocket. Now he knew what a rattlesnake sounds like. The deadly creature could have killed him, but he had killed it. He marveled at how easy it was to kill. He stood up straight. Perhaps he was a man after all.

Suddenly, he heard the school bus out on the road. He put the skin and the tools in the shed and hosed off the back porch. The bus turned into the driveway. He washed the knife and put it away. He slipped into a chair and opened a book as the bus came to a stop in the yard.

A few minutes later, he heard Aunt Ginny say, “What’s this?” He had forgotten all about the turtle.

“I found him in the woods. Can I keep him for a pet? Do you know what they eat?”

She shook her head. “No, you can’t keep him. They’re an endangered species. The game warden’d throw us both in jail. You need to let him go. He’ll find food in the woods.”

Disappointed, Mario hopped off the porch. The motion jiggled the rattle in his pocket. Aunt Ginny perked up as though listening, but when she heard nothing more, she went inside. Mario carried the turtle with one arm and held his other hand over the pocket to keep the rattle quiet. After he released the gopher, he returned to the house and found Aunt Ginny brushing paw prints off the living room couch.

“What was Skeeter doin’ in the house?”

“Uh, there was a rattlesnake in the yard. I didn’t want him to get bit.”

“You left it alone, I hope.”

Mario couldn’t lie to her. His hesitation told on him.

“Empty your pockets,” she directed.

He had no choice but to show her the rattle. Her eyes bulged.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the shed.” He told her the whole story.

“I don’t think it’d come into the house. It was just trying to get under the house where it’s cool.” When Aunt Ginny saw the size of the skin, she clutched her chest and hollered, “Holy Jesus! Snake that big could kill you!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’s a canebrake rattler. That’s why it’s so red. They don’t usually bother anybody. They usually just run away.”

“But it was trying to bite Skeeter.”

“Only because he was harassing it.  If you see another one, you and Skeeter stay in the house till I come home. Promise?”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt like a child again. He looked down at his feet.

Aunt Ginny put an arm around his shoulders. “Was you scared?”

“No ma’am. Well, maybe. I guess. I was afraid for Skeeter.”

“You were very brave to protect Skeeter. I’m proud of you for that.” Then she turned him to face her and put a hand on each shoulder. “But from now on, leave snakes alone. I can’t have a foster child bit by a poisonous snake.”

“Yes ma’am.” When he looked into her eyes, they were twinkling.

“What do you plan to do with that?” She meant the canebrake skin.

“Can I take it to California with me?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“What do you think my dad will say?”

Aunt Ginny smiled. “I think he will be very proud of you.”

Blueberries

I guess I need to plant more blueberries. The other night, I dreamed I was buying organic blueberries for $3 a pint. “That’s a good price,” I said. My father didn’t think so. He was thinking 20th century prices. Behind the table where the blueberries were displayed in my dream was a poster about growing blueberries. “You really should, you know,” said Dad. I had to agree with him.

My dad was a real character. He could be cantankerous, especially in his later years. Although he dropped out of high school, he was one of the most intelligent men I’ve known, and he never stopped learning. He didn’t see much value in fiction, but he read things that interested him. He was definitely a male chauvinist. He didn’t put much stock in daughters, expecting them to marry and become another man’s responsibility, but he expected his sons to become partners in his businesses. I don’t know why—he left his parents’ farm and went his own way, to the disappointment of his  father. His sons followed suit and went their own ways, leaving only daughters to help out.

The last picture I took of Dad, with two of his farmhands (granddaughters).

He was jealous of people with a college education. He’d call them “edjicated fools.” He especially saw no sense in a girl going to college, but I went anyway. Before I retired, I told him I might go back to graduate school. He said, “Why? You can learn anything you want to know on your own. There’s always the internet.” And this came from a man who hated computers! I concede he was right on this one. Most anything I want to know I can find on my own, on the internet or the old fashioned way, in books. I don’t need more letters behind my name, nor do I want another career, except writing. Maybe that’s why I listened to him when he said I should grow blueberries.

Although he grew up on a farm, the only farming he did before “retired” was beekeeping. He liked honey and always wanted his own beehives. When I was a teenager, a swarm of bees flew though our yard and he caught them. From this first hive, he expanded to a successful honey business. The lure of farming never left him and he eventually bought a farm in Blackfork, Arkansas. Most people retire to Florida. My parents retired from Florida to Arkansas and my sister and her husband took over the bee business. Dad tried to establish a honey business in Blackfork but, no one is sure why, honeybees wouldn’t thrive there.

You’ve heard the expression, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I’m so far behind I’ll never die.” I lived by this axiom for years. Look at Dad. At the age of 80, he had more projects going than anyone knew. His parents had lived to 95 and 96 and I expected Dad to make it to 100. I also considered my prospects promising, as long as I followed his example. When talking about how busy I was, I’d say, “It’s not that I have too many irons in the fire. It’s that I have too many fires.” I too could live forever!

Dad sorely disappointed me when he exited this world at 81. The day of his funeral, the farm was suddenly full of honeybees. They must have come from miles around to pay their respects. Then they went away and never came back.

In the years since, many times I’ve wished I could talk with him. I miss calling him up and saying, “What do you think about this?” I wonder what he would think about what’s going on in the world. At times I’m glad that he didn’t live to see certain things.

Lately I’ve heard a lot about the virtues of blueberries. My property is just right for blueberry bushes. Wild ones grow in my woods. A few years ago I bought five commercial plants and three of them survived neglect, drought, and late spring freezes. A few more might make the effort worthwhile.

Gardening in the woods has its challenges—finding enough areas of sunshine and battling wildlife. I had a nice patch of strawberries once, until wild hogs plowed them up and destroyed them. The few survivors were too traumatized to live. I planted a lily bed which the armadillos dug up. So I went to container gardens and raised beds. A crop of broccoli was almost ready to harvest when the deer ate them down to bare stems. So I put chicken wire over the beds. The deer squashed that down to feast on my carrot tops. In this constant battle of wits, the dumb animals are one move ahead of me.

Other people have a problem with deer eating their blueberries. Not me.  Besides vegetables, they eat my ornamentals, even my succulents, but so far no one has eaten, dug under, or plowed up my blueberry plants.

Maybe it’s worth a shot. Thanks, Dad.

Last month, I worried about the late arrival of the Chuck-wills-widow. Now they’re back, having trickled in. I heard one in the distant forest one night, none the following night, another the third night. Then a few more. A month later, they’re filling the nights with sound. They start calling at dusk and are most vocal in the early night hours, but I hear them in the middle of the night and early mornings before dawn.

They must have sensed my concern over their absence. As though to reassure me they’ve come home, a pair has taken to serenade me every evening in my yard. One perches in a tree north of the house and another in the south. They call back and forth, as if in conversation, and don’t seem to mind when I go out on the porch to listen, but if I venture any closer, they fly away.

Lately, the nights have been mild enough to sleep with a bedroom window open, the better to hear birds and peepers and other inhabitants of the night. At dawn, every bird in the neighborhood begins to sing. Who needs a clock radio when such music invites you into the day?

After it grows light, the concert is over and they go about their business. Still, the day is not silent. Wild Turkeys gobble. Cardinals, Wrens, and fowl I can’t identify keep the music going. I’m no bird watcher. In the woods, you can’t see the birds for the trees, but you can hear them.

Lately, I’ve heard a familiar “Cheeri-up? Cheerio!” The Robins migrated north months ago, but they passed through, leaving their songs. Our Mockingbirds mimic the Robin (as I wrote in Robin Song), but they prefer open spaces and my yard is mostly wooded, so I suspect it’s a Brown Thrasher, a close relative of the Mockingbird who prefers woods and thickets, like where I live. Here is a link to Brown Thrasher songs, but none of these recordings includes an imitation of a Robin song:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Thrasher/sounds

The Brown Thrasher’s repertoire is almost as varied as it’s cousin the Mockingbird’s.

Birds are not the only creatures making their presence known. The Carpenter Bees have invaded my potting shed. They came out in early March, then in the middle of the month we had a few 25 degree nights and they disappeared. (Maybe they went to Florida for the rest of the winter.) Now they’re back. They make nests in unpainted wood, like my potting shed.

When I approach, something like an oversized bumblebee flies at me, buzzing like he means business. This is a male trying to threaten me, but I know he has no stinger and can do no more than be annoying. His mate, who does have a stinger, is too busy to bother me, preparing a home for her babies. But even the females seldom sting. I hear them buzz their way into 2x4s, leaving a pile of sawdust behind.

This Carpenter Bee is all buzz. He can bite, but he can’t sting.

Once I sawed into a piece of scrap lumber which, unknown to me, contained a Carpenter Bee nest. Suddenly, a bee flew out. I don’t know who was more alarmed, me or the bee. The poor thing took off, never to be seen in the environs again. These Carpenter Bees are pesky, but as long as they don’t drill holes in my house, I leave them alone. Like most bees, they are important pollinators and this kind can pollinate flowers that are too difficult for others, including Honeybees, to service.

There are thousands of species of bees. I’ve become interested in native bees. Honeybees aren’t native. They’re immigrants from Europe. Many of our native bees resemble Honeybees and Bumblebees and others look like wasps or flies. Most don’t sting or make honey. Bumblebees make honey, but only in modest quantities, unlike Honeybees. While I love honey, the Honeybee is overrated as a pollinator. There are many flowers, including important food crops, that Honeybees lack the proper equipment to pollinate, but there is a native bee that has been designed just for that flower.

One of Carpenter Bees’ nature enemies is woodpeckers. Although I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of bees, Pileated Woodpeckers have taken up residence at my place. They probably like it here because I leave dead trees standing, as long as they’re not close enough to fall on my house. I hear woodpeckers drumming on trees and occasionally their large wings flapping through the woods. Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds

Today I saw one on the pine tree just outside my living room window. He gave me time to get my camera, but when I stepped near the window to snap a picture, he took off with loud flapping wings.

These are big woodpeckers.

Here’s something few people know. While birds eat seeds, they must have protein from insects in order to reproduce. Folks will put out all kinds of bird feeders to attract birds, then spray every bug they see. Pesticides are unhealthy for birds (and people) as well as insects. Learn to live with a few bugs in the yard. Let the birds eat them. Nature is not always convenient.

Earlier this spring, a house wren took up residence on my front porch and raised a brood. Every time I stepped onto the porch, she startled me—I swear they can fly faster than a speeding bullet! They nest in hanging plants, under eaves, and in my shed. One spring a wren nested on a window sill when I left an awning window open during a warm spell. When cool weather returned, I had to leave the window open so as not to disturb her nest. Fortunately, these birds don’t take long to raise a family. One morning, I heard the most joyous singing. The wren perched on the edge of her nest announcing motherhood. In no time at all, the babies grew up and flew away so I could close the window again.

House Wren singing.

As I said, nature is not always convenient, but it’s always wondrous.

https://marieqrogers.com/2015/02/28/robin-song/

https://marieqrogers.com/2017/03/31/finally-the-whippoorwill/

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

The Jewel of Fancy Gap

In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

sidna-allen-house

The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

img_0398

Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

 

On January 21st, I had a most extraordinary experience. I stood in the midst of the largest crowd I’d ever encountered and was overwhelmed by peace and good will. A million strong, we stood shoulder to shoulder, packed so closely together we could barely move, yet everyone was friendly and polite. Kindness and respect for one another were the order of the day.

I’m not sure what I expected when I set out on this adventure. I was not a likely candidate for a political rally. In my college days, during the Viet Nam War, I’d pass fellow students and professors staging sit-ins on the lawn when I went to class. My sentiments were with them, but as a penniless scholarship student, my spare time was devoted to work and study. In after years, while causes came and went, I was busy with family and work. More recently, I gathered signatures on petitions for environmental causes, emailed politicians, and wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper. But I’d never done anything like this before.

When a lady at church announced plans to hire a charter bus to the Women’s March in Washington, something nudged me. This was something I knew I must do. Another lady recruited volunteers to crochet and knit pink hats for the marchers. Armed with my crochet hook and pink yarn, I lost count after a half-dozen hats.

img_0740

I marched for her and others who couldn’t.

I hadn’t realized how much preparation was required for such an event. We were asked to register online so organizers could plan for numbers, get parade permits, and arrange for porta-potties and first aid stations. I attended a meeting on how we should conduct ourselves, how to dress for the weather, and what kinds of bags we’d be allowed to carry. Those making signs were given guidelines—they should have a positive message. This was to be a solidarity march, not a protest. I didn’t want to carry a sign but was paired up with a young woman who couldn’t attend due to her disability. I wore her picture on my back, allowing her to participate in the march.

The trip to DC was an adventure in itself. We left at 6pm and traveled through the night, changing drivers in North Carolina. About 5:30 Saturday morning, the bus stopped at a truck stop outside DC to gas up and let us use the restroom. The line for the ladies’ room was long and slow-moving.  I fueled up on coffee and a banana while I waited. The clerks in the store were friendly and helpful. They allowed ladies to use the toilets in the shower rooms. I quipped that we should take over the men’s room, since we outnumbered them. Someone took me seriously. When the last man came out, a group of ladies crowded in.

Occasionally some poor man would walk in and see all those women. Thinking he had mistakenly entered the wrong restroom, the panicked look on his face was priceless! We’d invited him in and say, “You can use a stall.” Everything worked out just fine.

Here we are in DC.

Here we are in DC.

We pulled into the Naylor Road Metro station about 8am. The last time I rode a subway, you put a coin or token in a slot. No more. We’d been advised to purchase Metro cards, a sort of debit card. The man at the turn style must have been used to tourists. He patiently instructed us to swipe the cards. Over and over. He must have felt like a broken record by the end of his shift. At the end of the ride, at L’Enfant Plaza, we swiped the cards again. I don’t know why.

In front of the Library of Congress.

In front of the Library of Congress.

Marchers from Florida were to assemble on a corner of Independence Avenue near the Capitol. I had signed up for the Florida Breakfast hosted by our women Senators and Representatives, held at the Library of Congress. We went to the building but couldn’t find the breakfast. We didn’t realize there are two buildings. By the time we found the breakfast line at the other building, it was still a block long and we were running out of time, so we skipped breakfast. I found the Florida delegation but got separated from my bus mates and didn’t see them for the rest of the day.img_0750

The throng moved down Independence Ave. Spirits were high but the crowd was twice the size as had been anticipated. We reached the National Museum of the American Indian and many people were uncertain which way to go. Some tried to circle the building, only to find a dead end. I tried a passage between the museum and a reflecting pool, but there was no egress and I had to double back. Some adventurous souls took the short cut, wading across the pool. Somehow, I ended up on Jefferson Ave. Lining the Mall was a row of porta potties. I didn’t knowing when I’d have another opportunity, so I got in line. Everyone was courteous and cheerful despite the wait.

Afterward, I found myself on the Mall. This park is over a mile long and nearly a third of a mile wide. There was barely standing room. A man next to me hoisted his little boy up on his shoulders and asked if he could see any open area. The child said, “No, it’s like this everywhere.” Occasionally a line of people would move through the crowd and I’d move with them. We’d jostle one another and say, “Oh, excuse me.” I knew better than to carry a purse and had a “fanny pack” under my jacket, but I was aware of no attempted thefts or other unpleasant actions.

The people—every race and religion, every state in the nation was represented, and I heard there was a couple from Australia. I spoke with a young woman from Miami was had driven here by herself for the march. It wasn’t exclusively a woman’s march. There were many men, and families with children. By the end of the day, the children were tired and the parents exhausted, but I heard no harsh words or crying children. In a post I read after the march, a woman told how her little girl had been impressed by the kindness she saw everywhere.img_0762

Eventually I moved down the Mall, past the museums. Later, a man on our bus said he’d gone into the Museum of American History to get something to eat and use the restroom. I love these museums, but I wasn’t here for that. I stayed in the crowd and ate the sandwich I’d brought. Near the Smithsonian castle, I found some open space and a tent with tables and chairs. I was glad to get off my feet and chat with the others resting there. As I made my way past a carousel, I heard loud cheering and decided to check it out.

The Smithsonian Castle.

The Smithsonian Castle.

I knew there were to be speakers but wasn’t sure where they’d be. I joined a crown squeezing by the African Art Museum toward Independence Avenue. That’s where the excitement was. This street and even the side streets were packed. I could hear speakers but caught only occasional snatches of their speeches. There were large screens and loudspeakers, but they were too far away and I was too short to see over the crowd. So I chatted with the people around me about where they were from and why they had come. Every social justice issue was represented, from Education to Racial Justice. My pet cause is the Environment. Let’s face it, without a livable Earth, those other issues won’t amount to a hill of beans.

This is a worthy cause.

This is a worthy cause.

The march was supposed to start at 1pm. The speeches went on until after 2pm. We were getting restless, partly because we couldn’t hear much of what was being said. We started chanting, “March! March! March!” Every so often, we tried to move west on Independence Avenue, but were stopped by the crowd at the next screen who were able to see and hear the speeches.

I like his sign.

I like his sign.

Finally, we heard sirens and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. A police car moved cautiously down the street closely followed by a cadre of reporters. The March had finally begun. Every so often someone would start a chant. My favorite was, “Tell me what Democracy looks like! This is what Democracy looks like!”

There was very little police presence and those I saw seemed intent on maintaining safety. As we approached the corner where we were to turn towards the Washington Monument, two policemen stood on top of their patrol car. Marchers waved at them as they passed and the policemen waved back. When the crowd began to chant, the officers made hand motions to encourage us.

At the Washington Monument, I ran into some friends from church who had driven up separately. They said they’d been by the White House, but the police there seemed quite antsy, so they left. Not wishing to place extra burden on the peace officers, I didn’t venture to that part of town, but made my way back toward the Metro station. On my way, I came to the corner I’d passed at 3pm. The last of the marchers were approaching. It was now 4pm. It had taken an hour for the entire march to pass that point.

At the Washington Monument.

At the Washington Monument.

I managed to find the Metro station and rode the train back to Naylor Road. There I met up with my bus mates. All that day, separated from everyone I knew, I hadn’t felt the least bit frightened or alone. It had been an uplifting experience. The local people I came in contact with throughout the day were friendly and proud of their city. Without exception, they’d say, “Welcome to DC.”

My feet were so sore I could barely walk. Once on the bus, I took off my shoes. When we stopped for a restroom break in the middle of the night, my feet were so swollen I could barely get my shoes on. Once I got home, I hit the couch.

My takeaway from this incredible experience is: this is a great country where so many people of all walks of life and diverse causes and opinions can gather in peace, respect, and camaraderie. My faith in my fellow Americans has been restored. This is what Democracy looks like.

Our Trip to Florida

With the turning of the year, I was reminded of this story, which took place around the New Year, fifty three years ago.

Dad was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. Afterwards, he couldn’t tolerate cold weather. All through childhood, I heard him threaten to move to Florida to get out of those Upstate New York winters. When I was around twelve, he and a friend actually took a trip south to scope things out. There, his car broke down, so he bought a Chrysler New Yorker and brought it home. That car was destined to return to Florida. A few years later, my parents sold the house, paid off debts, and we moved.

This car is similar to the one we took to Florida,

Our car was similar to this one.

It may sound crazy to load up the family and take off on a 1000 mile move with no solid goal (as in job or place to live), but that’s what we did. Of course, there were preparations. Dad built a utility/camping trailer with a canvas top. Clothing and dishes were packed inside and our mattresses laid on top. The canvas lid could be propped up like a lean-to roof, and with a camp stove and ice chest, we had all the comforts of home, right? No need to buy ice—Dad yanked a couple of ice sickles off the eaves of the house. They were as big around as my arm and people in Florida were astounded.

Our other belongings were left with my grandparents or loaded on the back of Dad’s truck which he stored in a friend’s garage. The plan was to return for the truck in a few weeks. (Those few weeks became a few years.)

Dad's old truck years later. It used to be green.

Dad’s old truck years later. It used to be green.

So, one cold day in late December, 1963, we set out in the Chrysler. This was long before mini-vans, and even a station wagon wouldn’t hold all of us. Have you ever traveled with a half dozen or so kids crammed together in the back seat of a car?  It was the middle of winter, so we huddled together for warmth. We didn’t fight among ourselves. We couldn’t. There was no room.

Besides, we were off on an adventure, fulfilling a dream.

In the middle of the night, somewhere in Virginia, Mom was driving and hit a deer. I woke when the car stopped. Mom was in the front seat, but Dad wasn’t. There’d been no damage to the car, but the deer didn’t fare so well. Later, as Dad told the story, another vehicle stopped but they couldn’t find the deer. Suddenly, the injured animal leaped up out of the roadside brush and one of the men whipped out a gun and shot it. Dad thought this was a good time to leave. He said, “Well, boys, you got yourselves a deer!” Then he high-tailed it back to the car, jumped in, and off we went.

With eight kids and limited funds, you don’t stay at motels. We were geared up for camping, but it was too cold, so we kept going. The Interstate Highway System hadn’t been built yet, so travel took more time than it does for most folks nowadays.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve with our first taste of Mountain Dew, which at the time was a “hillbilly” soda. I thought it was delicious. The formula has since been changed, and/or my tastes are now more refined.

When we crossed into South Carolina, two very disparate things greeted us: a palm tree and South of the Border, tourist trap extraordinaire. The palm was a sable (or cabbage) palmetto, symbol of the “Palmetto State,” also the state tree of Florida. At the time, South of the Border straddled 301 and sold artifacts from Mexico. Now days, it caters to I-95 traffic and sells cheap souvenirs.

Sabal Palm

Sabal Palm

In Savannah, I got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. A high bridge took us over the river, and off to the left was a sparkling patch of blue. In much of Georgia, the highway ran through mile after mile of pine forests. My parents commented on the lack of guardrails along the deep, water-filled ditches. If someone went off the road, they’d never be found. We rolled into Florida on January 2nd.

We stopped in the Ocala National Forest, near Salt Springs, for a few days. Dad pulled up to a little country store and asked where we could camp. The proprietor gestured to a tree on the edge of his parking lot and said people sometimes camp there, so we did. The man was very nice, but instead of a Southern drawl, he talked so fast I couldn’t understand him. He might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I wonder if he got tired of us asking, “What?”

We were now in sunny Florida, so we put on shorts and went for a walk down a sandy road through a hammock of palm, oak, and cypress. It was sunny, all right, but it was COLD. An arctic blast had followed us south and we about froze to death. After a day or so, my parents decided to go farther south.

We settled in Moore Haven, on the south side of Lake Okeechobee. You couldn’t see the lake because of the levy around it, and you could get to it only by boating down a canal. We stayed in a campground near the lake until Dad got a job and we rented a house.

In reflection, it’s amazing how much has changed in the last half-century. In some ways, though certainly not all, this was a simpler, more innocent time. Not many children today are privileged to have the remarkable experiences we did.

You can read more about Moore Haven and our other early adventures in Florida in “Hurricane Dora”: https://marieqrogers.com/tag/hurricane-dora/

260 White Crosses

To cross a desert on foot is to risk your life. Some make it through, arriving at their destination safe and alive, but some do not.

Last November, I joined a BorderLinks delegation to Arizona and Mexico. BorderLinks is a non-profit, faith based organization that offers educational immersion experiences on border and immigration issues. Our group of twelve from Florida and three from North Carolina spent a week in Tucson with an overnight visit to Agua Prieta, Mexico. The trip was heart-touching and enlightening, and one of the most moving experiences was the Healing Our Borders Prayer Vigil.

on-the-way-south-026

The Arizona desert can be beautiful.

Tuesday afternoon we left Tucson and traveled to the border town of Douglas, Arizona. This was my first visit to Arizona and I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the state. We drove through desert alive with cacti, mesquite, and wildflowers. Beyond stood breathtaking mountains streaked with purple and other hues. We made a pit stop in Tombstone. This state is so full of history, I plan to return someday to explore what I missed.

In Douglas, we stopped at a MacDonald’s a few blocks from the Mexican border. Soon, we were joined by Pastor Mark Adams, a local Presbyterian minister, a group of Presbyterian Youth, a handful of local people and visitors, and Sister Lucy, a Teaching Sister of Notre Dame.

Prior to 1994, when NAFTA was passed, there were no recorded deaths of migrants in the desert, but this soon changed. Rural Mexico saw economic collapse and small farmers lost their homes and livelihood. As a result, many went elsewhere to find work in order to feed their families, some to the United States. With changes in the political climate and tightening of border policies, the most desperate resorted to entering through remote desert areas.

The same beautiful country I rode through in the comfort of an air conditioned van can be lethal for someone on foot. By 2000, the number of deaths had risen to alarming rates. Many humanitarian organizations were formed, including Frontera de Cristo which leads the vigil every Tuesday evening in remembrance of those who have died trying to achieve the “American Dream.” In Cochise County alone, between 2009 and 2015, the remains of more than 260 people had been found in the desert. Since then, the death toll has risen and upwards of 6,000 have lost their lives in the desert southwest.

A van arrived with a load of white crosses which we transferred to a shopping cart. Each cross bore a name and the person’s dates of birth and death. There were more than 260 of them. But some had no names, only a designation “No identificata” and the date of when the remains had been found.

Pastor Mark Adams giving instructions for the vigil.

Pastor Mark Adams giving instructions for the vigil.

We each took three crosses and lined up along the street leading to the border crossing. Pastor Mark held up his first cross and spoke the name written on it. Everyone else responded, “Presente!” Then he laid his cross against the curb. The next person in line held up a cross, we said “Presente!” and the cross was set down a few feet away.prayer-vigil-013

Down the street we progressed. One by one. Some of the fallen were women and children. My turn came. By now I was struggling with tears and could barely pronounce the name through the lump in my throat. When we each had set down our last cross, we took another from the cart and continued down the street, announcing names, “Presente!” and laying the crosses against the curb, until only three were left, which Pastor Mark took for himself.

One of my crosses had no name. On it was written, “Mujer—No identificata” (unidentified woman).” More tragic even than a name of a child who had died, was this woman with no name. Who was she? How did she die? Did she perish of dehydration or heat exhaustion? Or was her death more swift, by drowning in the large ditch at the border?prayer-vigil-011

My Mujer was certainly someone’s daughter, probably someone’s sister. Was she married? If so, what became of her husband? Was his name, or lack of it, inscribed on another cross? Did he survive to go on, unable (or afraid) to report her death or claim her body? Did she have children? Where were they? Waiting for her to join them in the Land of the Free? Or did she leave them with relatives in her quest for work so she could send money to feed them?

And why, oh why, do we not know her name? Were her remains so scattered that no clothing, papers, or possessions could be traced to her?

After the last cross, save three, had been laid down, we gathered in a circle at a park within sight of the border. One by one, Pastor Mark announced two names, one of them a teenage boy, and another unknown. One by one, we “Presente’d” and he laid each cross in the center of our circle.prayer-vigil-016

Standing there in the cold night, listening to prayers for the families of the fallen and for both of our countries, remembering the dead and praying for a peaceful solution, I was moved by the tragedy of so many hopeful lives cut short.

Whatever you may think about those who were lost, about their motivations, their judgment, these were living, breathing souls, like you and me, with hopes and dreams, struggles and sorrows. Some died alone and some in the company of friends or loved ones who had no choice but to go on. And even the unknowns, the No Indentificata, were loved and mourned by someone.

On that cold night in that border town, as we returned to the parking lot, picking up the crosses as we went, we all mourned for our brothers and sisters, those children of God, whom we never met on this side of the border between life and death, but who had become real to our hearts.

 

%d bloggers like this: