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HALLOWEENING

 

Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.

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My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!

 

This summer I spent a few weeks in West Virginia with my granddaughter Tiffany and her family. They live near Kearneysville in the state’s eastern-most county, Jefferson County. Her husband Justin comes from a huge extended family. Both of his parents came from large families, as in ten or so kids, and their parents as well. He said none of them move away. They just stay there, generation after generation. He has so many cousins, known and unknown, that he wouldn’t date a girl from West Virginia. He played it safe, he thought, by marrying a girl from Florida.

My great-grandmother came from three counties away, Hampshire County, from the little community of Slanesville. Like Justin’s family, her forbears settled there in the 1700s and stayed, until one of the wandering Rogers, my great-grandfather John Thomas, married her and carted her off to upstate New York. I can see why they stayed. Unlike most of mountainous West Virginia, this area in the North River Valley is blessed with rolling hills and good farmland.

Slanesville, WV, looking toward the North River

Slanesville, WV. Looking toward the North River

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I like to do a little genealogical research. This can be challenging because these folks practiced subsistence farming and recycled most everything. They even recycled names. Say you have a man named John. He names his oldest son John. Half of John’s ten or so children might be boys. John, Jr. and each of his brothers name a son after their father, and in only three generations you end up with a half dozen or so men with the same name, and many of them are cousins about the same age. I’ve run into this sort of thing trying to trace my roots. I try to sort them by birthdates. Have you ever written a number or date wrong? Family historians are human, and records are not always accurate, if they even exist. Hampshire County libraries have good historical records, but I’ve been stymied by who is my ancestor and which are distant cousins. So before venturing over to Hampshire County, I went through my notes and wrote down the vital statistics of the people I was looking for.

One branch of the family tree is the Hietts. The name has variously been spelled as Hiatt, Hiet, Hyet, Hayet, and Hyatt. And the line is full of Johns. My ancestors John and Mary Hiett, Quakers, were born in England and joined William Penn in Pennsylvania around 1700. They had a large estate near Philadelphia and produced several children, among them, John Hiett, Jr. He married Margaret Stephens and they eventually ended up in Hampshire County, which at the time was part of Virginia.

Poring over my notes, I found an interesting tidbit: after they left Pennsylvania, before moving on to Hampshire County, the Hietts owned land in Frederick County, Virginia. In those days, the colonies were divided into large counties, which were later broken up into the smaller counties we know today. The part of Frederick County, Virginia where John, Jr. and Margaret lived is now Jefferson County, West Virginia! My ancestor Evan Hiett was born there in 1748. Wow

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek, West Virginia

Several miles downstream  of the Hiett holdings.

Several miles downstream of the Hiett holdings.

The Hietts lived on Opequon Creek. I’d crossed that creek a dozen times going to and from Martinsburg. They lived upstream, near the town of Middleway.  “That’s just up the road from here!” Justin said. So Tiffany and I drove up the road to Middleway. I expected, at most, a sign indicating where the historical town once stood, but I was pleased to find Middleway is still, in its own way, thriving.

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Main St. Middleway

Main St. Middleway. My ancestors settled in the neighborhood before these houses were built. 

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Opequon Creek flows from what is still Frederick County, Virginia, forms the county line between Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, and empties into the Potomac River. John, Jr. had farms on both sides of the creek. Property records still exist, so one day I may go back and locate them.

When John, Jr. and Margaret moved to Hampshire County, Evan went with them. He settled in the town of North River Mills where the restored Hiett Log House still stands. (You can see this house at http://www.historichampshire.org/nrm/building/finelli.htm).

In 1784, Evan “Hyett” was listed as the head of a family of eight “white souls,” with one dwelling and four out buildings. He married Sarah Smith and their daughter Margaret married Benjamin McDonald whose father had emigrated from Scotland. One of their descendants was Rebecca McDonald Rogers, my great-grandmother.

Evan’s brother John Hiett III stayed in present day Jefferson County. Eventually, some of the Hietts and their descendants scattered to the Carolinas, the Midwest, and who knows where else. But not all moved on. Uncle John is reportedly buried at the Hopewell Friends Cemetery in present day Frederick County, Virginia, less than ten miles from Middleway. Sons are fairly easy to trace, but daughters marry and change their names. Who knows what names my distant cousins in Jefferson County go by?

Uh, Justin, I hate to tell you—maybe you didn’t go far enough away to find a wife who’s not your cousin.

Adventures with GPS

The month of August saw me traveling and visiting grandchildren, wrestling with my new “smart” phone, and trying to figure out how to use GPS. Before I set out on my trip, I went to a Verizon store for help. I told the nice young man that the GPS insisted on sending me on the Interstate and I don’t do Interstates. “Why not?”  he said. “You get there faster.” What’s his hurry? He’s young. He has plenty of time. As for me, I’m in no hurry to get to the end of my journey, and I prefer to enjoy the drive. You miss a lot when you stick to the Interstate.

You won't find this on the Interstate.

You won’t find this on the Interstate. (Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway)

Google Maps on my computer gives me the option of avoiding highways. Apparently the young man didn’t know how to program my smart phone this way, so he put another app on the phone that (he said) would do back roads. It didn’t.

After plotting my course using road maps and Google Maps, I headed north.

Or this

Or this. (Near Ludowici, GA)

I planned to camp in Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina. Since I got off to a late start that day, it was dark by the time I reached to Uwharrie. I thought this was a good time to put the GPS to the test, since I was far from any Interstate. I pulled over and typed in Uwharrie National Forest campground.

The lady’s voice on the GPS—whoa!–that’s too awkward. Let’s call her GyPSy. (We used to have a pony named Gypsy and she was cantankerous, too.) Anyway, Gypsy directed me down a series of back roads and deposited me in front of someone’s driveway. I didn’t think the residents of the house wanted me to camp in their yard, so I drove on, hoping the campground was nearby. I never found it. Gypsy kept telling me to make U turns, turn down such and such a road, and the like for the next hour until I figured out how to shut her up.

Consulting my map, I concluded I’d taken the wrong road to the national forest. It was raining and I didn’t want to backtrack, so I drove on. The next town had a Walmart. With the permission of a manager, I parked there for the night. The next day I stuck to the directions I’d written down before my trip and reached my granddaughter’s house with no trouble.

One thing I’ve discovered is that newer road maps are less detailed than older ones. That plus poorly labeled roads makes it hard to plot a course. Is there a conspiracy? Do “they” want us to stick to the Interstates? Are “they” trying to sell more GPS gadgets? Or is our growing dependence on GPS letting highway departments get away with sloppy work?

I spent two pleasant weeks in West Virginia. Toying with the phone during my stay, I figured out how to program Gypsy to avoid highways. Before leaving for Virginia, I drove over to Hampshire County in search of some ancestors who are buried in Slanesville. Although, I knew my way around, I thought I’d see if Gypsy could find a short cut. No–the poor dear was lost! Maybe I was too far from any Interstate. That thing on a computer that goes round and round when it’s searching for something went round and round and round until I reached Romney.

Slanesville, WV

Slanesville, WV

I consulted a map and spent the rest of the afternoon driving through picturesque West Virginia mountains. Almost Heaven. I hated to leave but was expected at my daughter’s home in Radford, Virginia that night. I stopped to eat in Covington. The day had been pleasant and sunny, but the night turned dark and rainy. Over supper, I consulted my road map for the most direct route to Radford, then I programmed Gypsy.

Computer savvy people refuse to believe that those devious machines have a mind of their own, but they do. I know what Gypsy was thinking: “So, she wants back roads? Well, I’ll give her back roads!”

And back roads I got. Roads with names like 617 and 725. Roads that weren’t on my map. Before long, I was helplessly lost and dependent on her caprice. Gypsy directed me to turn here and there, mostly in unpopulated areas, through two national forests. One road was so narrow that if I’d met an oncoming vehicle, we’d both have scraped paint off trying to squeeze by. Fortunately, I had plenty of gas and my compass told me I was gradually making my way south. I breathed with relief when I came to US 11, Lee Highway. Now I knew where I was and where I was going.

I have to give Gypsy credit—she got me there in one piece and in the time frame she’d predicted. But how’d she know about these forest roads when she was totally lost on a state road in West Virginia?

Is this Tow Mater?

Is this Tow Mater? (Near Hillsville, VA)

On my way home, she successfully navigated me through Salisbury, North Carolina, where I invariably get lost. I planned to spend the night at Santee State Park in South Carolina, so I gave her this destination. She found a short cut that wasn’t on my map, but when I got to the park, she argued with me that the campground was at a ranger’s residence. Don’t you hate a machine that thinks she’s smarter than you?  But I knew better. A sign clearly pointed to the campground.

The next morning, I expected Gypsy to find a shortcut home, but she routed me through Orangeburg, South Carolina. I didn’t mind. I never drive through that city without stopping at Edisto Memorial Gardens to smell the roses.

Edisto Memorial Gardens

Did you feel the Earth shake the other day? I took a step into the 21st Century. I bought a smart phone.

It all started with road signs, or rather, the lack of them. I’m disdainful of those who rely on GPS. I can read a road map just fine. Besides, GPS isn’t accurate in out of the way places, like the woods where I live. Before going on a trip, I consult Google Maps, but I rely on paper and ink road maps, as Google’s directions can go awry.

The problem is, so many places don’t label their roads accurately, if at all. Once, traveling north on US 301/US 1 in Georgia, I came to where the highways diverge. Signs said, “US 301 Left Lane” and “US 1 Right Lane,” so I got in the left lane. Then as I approached the intersection, signs pointed left for US 1 and right for 301! I hastily switched to the right lane. Other motorists ahead and behind me likewise swapped lanes. It looked like synchronized driving. I expected the road department to correct this, but every year it’s the same, the wrong signs slowly rusting away.

Florida may be known for its weirdness, but at least our Department of Transportation can label roads.

A few years ago, I visited Chattanooga. We saw a sign for the Chattanooga Choo Choo but couldn’t find it. There was no other signage to guide us. I had plotted my course and, looking for my turn, we saw something that made us laugh–a building with half a car sticking out the second story. I drove on.

Chattanooga is in a bowl surrounded by mountains and a river. I drove around and around in a circle but couldn’t find my intended route. Finally—a sign for the highway I wanted. Then I spotted something else—a car sticking out the second story of a building! We should have turned left at that intersection, but there had been no road sign. The highway took us up by Look Out Mountain, but by then I was in no mood for sightseeing. I only wanted to get away from that town. Maybe I’ll go back someday with GPS as well as a map, but Chattanooga lost my business that day.

One modern convenience I’ve embraced is the cell phone. In the last century, we had a car phone at work for whoever was on-call. Coverage was poor in remote areas, but it came in handy in case of trouble. Eventually, I got my own car phone. After the rest of the world moved on to cell phones, I kept my bag phone until it was so obsolete there was no fix when it malfunctioned. So I graduated to a cell phone. The world advanced to “smart” phones, but I was content with my “dumb” phone.

I noticed young people using their smart phones for GPS, Facebook, and myriad apps, but I had my road maps and a computer at home. Who needs to be “connected” every waking minute? I try hard to be a Luddite.

Ned Ludd

Ned Ludd

Actually, this term is widely misused. In the early 19th century, Ned Ludd was a fictitious leader of textile workers who protested unemployment and low wages. In loosely organized bands, they attacked factories and destroyed machinery. The original Ned Ludd was a young man who supposedly smashed stocking frames after a confrontation with his boss in 1779. Today, Luddite refers to someone who lives in the past, is inept with technology, or fears or resists innovation.

In 1829, Thomas Carlyle said that technology was causing a “mighty change” in “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” We are still wary of technology making us grow “mechanical in head and heart.” Some modern Luddites destroy things, such as with computer viruses, but most of us are innocently suspicious of and resistant to change.

Luddites

Luddites

Don’t ask me why. I’m typing this on a machine that has spell check, synonyms, and other features that make writing easier. Remember typewriters? You literally had to bang the keys on the old manual ones. If you made a mistake, you covered it with a white substance and retyped. The result didn’t look as clean and professional as this page will be when (or if) I print it. I constantly change my mind about wording and placement of phrases. In the old days, I’d have to retype the whole page. Now I can highlight and delete, retype, or drag a section to where I want it. Instead of typing “Chattanooga” half a dozen times, I highlighted, copied, and pasted the word, as I just now did. Sometimes technology ain’t so bad.

After my fellow writers kept bringing their laptops to our critique sessions while I relied on written notes, I bought one for myself. (And I’d always prided myself on being above peer pressure.) Earlier this month I volunteered at Wekiva Youth Camp and took my laptop. Our cabin had no Wi-Fi, yet my friends could read their email on their smart phones. It was nice to take a vacation from email, but I faced a mountain of it when I got home. To top it off, one of the ladies pays less for her smart phone service than I did for my dumb phone! That’s when I considered getting one.

So I called Verizon. The nice young man said I could get an iPhone for 99 cents. Of course, the nice young lady at the store tried to sell me bells and whistles, but I resisted. No written directions were included. Probably no one reads them anyway. I wasted over an hour trying to figure out how to set the alarm clock, then found directions online. Unfortunately, they’re as hard to follow as written directions. Maybe I’m still a Luddite.

Now if only I can figure out GPS, perhaps I won’t get quite so lost where they don’t post proper road signs.

 

 

Aunt Hazel

I thought about Aunt Hazel a lot today. Like her, I crochet. I usually buy cheap yarn at Wal-Mart, but for a special project I bought a skein from Yarnworks, a little shop in Gainesville. This yarn came in a long loop that had to be wound into a ball before I could use it. I remember Aunt Hazel had a contraption, called a yarn swift. You’d stretch a skein on the swift and as you pulled the yarn to wind it into a ball, the swift would turn and let the yarn out in an orderly fashion without tangling. I wish I’d had one today. Having none, I hung the skein over a chair. It worked for a while, but little by little the strands twisted together and before long, I had a tangled mess. It took over an hour to unravel it.

When you grow up with a person you seldom appreciate her accomplishments. Aunt Hazel never married and lived with her parents, Grandma and Grandpa Brown, until they died, then with her sister and brother-in-law, Grandma and Grandpa Rogers, for the rest of her days. Not much to brag about, but looking back on her life, I realize now how much she exceeded expectations for a maiden lady of her time.

With Mutt, October 1964

Aunt Hazel with Mutt, October 1964

Aunt Hazel was born in 1904, the youngest child in her family. Grandma and Grandpa Brown had a daughter and a son who died before my grandmother and Aunt Hazel were born. Such was infant mortality in those days. Grandma must have been healthy—she lived to be 96. Aunt Hazel, however, was “sickly,” suffering from epilepsy as a child. Probably because they’d lost their first two children, her parents sheltered her. She was also near sighted and wore glasses. Boys called her “four-eyes.” No wonder she never married.

In rural America in those days, respectable unmarried women lived with family and seldom worked outside the home. Aunt Hazel went to school and did housework. When the family moved to a farm, she and Grandma helped with farm work.

When Grandpa Brown died, Aunt Hazel and her mother moved in with the Rogers. After Grandma Brown died, Aunt Hazel stayed. Where else was she to go?

She never lived independently, but Aunt Hazel became a career woman. At first, she crocheted. That’s where the yarn swift comes into the picture. I remember as a child watching TV in their living room. Aunt Hazel would take a skein of yarn, loop it around the swift, and keep her hands busy winding the yarn into balls. Then she’d crochet. She made baby sets to sell—matching bonnets, sweaters, and booties of soft pastel yarn. These she’d pack in paper-lined boxes and take to McCrory’s, a five and dime store in Johnson City, where they were sold. Aunt Hazel must have made hundreds of those beautiful baby outfits. Curiously, none of us got one, but she also made baby blankets, and I still have mine. It’s too fragile to use, but a treasure, none the less.

This is close to what I remember Aunt Hazel's looked like.

This is close to what I remember Aunt Hazel’s yarn swift looked like.

Later, she became an Avon Lady. She didn’t earn just pocket money. She was a powerhouse of a sales woman, taking each campaign by the horns, and winning prize after prize for sales. Her route covered Johnson City and Binghamton. When she visited a customer, if the woman wasn’t in the market to buy, they’d just have a friendly chat. Quite often, the lady would remember something she wanted for herself or as a gift, and Aunt Hazel would make a sale, after all.

Few women of her generation drove a car, but Aunt Hazel was different. Since Grandma didn’t drive, Aunt Hazel would take her to deliver butter every Thursday. She owned a series of cars, always a Plymouth. She patronized a certain gas station in town. In those days, filling stations were also auto shops and her mechanic kept her on the road. One time when I accompanied her, I was shocked to hear him call her “Hazel.” How rude! The only people who called her by her first name were my grandparents. People outside the family called her “Miss Brown.”

We lived with my grandparents until I was ten. Aunt Hazel was like a third grandmother in the home. She would rock us, read to us, sing to us. She taught us “Froggie Went A-Courtin’” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”

Sometimes adults can be indiscreet. If he was upset with Aunt Hazel, Dad would call her an “old maid” behind her back. Once I won a prize at school and chose a deck of Old Maid Cards. In all innocence, I proudly showed them to Aunt Hazel and said, “Look, I’ve got Old Maid Cards, just like you.” I distinctly remember the silence that followed. I think Dad watched his tongue afterward.

As she aged, Aunt Hazel developed diabetes. She attributed this to indiscretion while working her Avon route. Instead of eating a proper lunch, she’d grab a pastry. She managed her blood sugar by close watch on her diet, but she slowly declined until she could no longer work. Then she developed dementia. The day she died, I cried all morning, not knowing why, until I got the news. She was only 75, young for our family.

It’s interesting how events shape our lives. In a generation where women were almost exclusively homemakers, Aunt Hazel was a saleswoman and Grandma ran a dairy farm. Had their brother survived, leaving the Browns a son to help work the farm, these ladies may have grown up to fill more traditional feminine roles. The necessity of doing men’s work gave them the gumption to become modern 20th Century women.

I thought about all these things while I untangled that almost impossible knot of yarn. By stubborn persistence, I succeeded and now am prepared to crochet.  I wonder what became of Aunt Haze’s yarn swift? I sure could have used it today.

For more on Grandma’s dairy business, read Binghamton Butter to Texas Kolaches.

I’ve been trading at Jackson’s Hardware store in Lake Butler off and on for more than twenty five years. I’d rather shop at the locally owned establishments than the big box stores. I may pay a little more, but what I receive in return can be priceless. This trip was no exception.

The double glass doors were plastered with ads for local handymen, notifications of church services, and similar community announcements. Beside the handle on the door to the left was a handwritten sign, “Don’t use this door.” By the handle on the right, “Use THIS door.” I was glad that, for once, I took the time to read.

Once inside, I was overwhelmed by the quantity of items packed into the small building. Where could I find the plumbing supplies, I wondered. Behind the counter sat three old men, jawing with one another. Assuming one to be the proprietor, I began to move in that direction, when a younger gentleman, whom I mistook as a fellow customer, asked if he could help.

Yes, I wanted some PVC fittings. I took a stub of pipe out of my purse to show him what size I required. He led me into the next room where an array of wooden bins held elbows, couplings, and what not. As I ran down my list, he fished the pieces out of the bins and took time to sort misplaced items into their proper places. One connector I desperately needed was sold out. No problem, the man grabbed a bag from a high shelf, tore it open, and restocked the bin. Once my selection was complete, I followed him to the counter.

Image result for hunters fishermen and other liars

On the wall facing me, among more notices, ads, and offers, was a sign, “Hunters, Fishermen, and Other Liars Gather Here.” The three old men sat in a row of chairs beneath the sign. They’d been talking continuously the whole time I was in the store. While the proprietor jotted my purchases on a sales slip, tallied the amount, and figured up the sales tax, I listened to their gossip.

The scene was classic. All that was missing was a potbellied stove (but the day was too warm), and a cracker barrel (if the store had room in for one). As the old fellows chatted about various matters, their conversation eventually led to the virtues of meat loaf sandwiches. One said, “You take your leftover meat loaf and make yourself a sandwich, and there ain’t nothin’ better.” The second agreed, “Yep. Nothin’ wrong with that.” The third seemed to be asleep, his hands resting on his ample belly.

They may have been liars, as the sign suggested, but having partaken of a few meat loaf sandwiches in my day, I guarantee they were telling the truth on this point.

Little has changed over the years at Jackson’s Hardware. In the laid back atmosphere, customer service has always been personal and courteous. If I need some old fashioned item not carried by the big box stores, I’m likely to find it here. I suspect they even restock the old men from time to time.

djibouti-map

Djibouti is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, sandwiched between Eritrea and Somalia, where the Red Sea flows into the Gulf of Aden. If you look at a map, the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula points right to it. The capital city is also named Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her family live there.

I visited them in 2004.  At the time, they lived in a two story house surrounded by a gated wall, a typical residence for well-to-do Djiboutians and middle-class expatriates. Next door, in a similar house, was the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Although Djibouti enjoys peace and good relations with the Western world and has not been a victim of the unrest that plagues the nations around it, I found it a little unsettling, at first, to stay next door to the Saudi Embassy. Not to worry, Lorraine and John assured me. They got along quite well with their neighbors. Indeed they did. When I wanted a sample of my name in Arabic, Lorraine sent their watchman next door and someone at the embassy wrote it on a piece of paper for me.

However, I hadn’t been there more than a few days, when one night I was jarred from sleep by explosions and lights flashing in the sky. I jumped out of bed and ran to my window, certain that we were under attack, that the wars raging throughout the Middle East had invaded peaceful little Djibouti, or the embassy next door was being bombed, but I couldn’t see anything except flashes of light. I knew it was no thunderstorm. So I ran to another window.

I’m not sure whether John’s sleep was disturbed by the explosions or by my running through the house. He accosted me on my way to a third window and said, “It’s all right! It’s all right. It’s only fireworks.” And so it was. We couldn’t get a clear view of them, only enough to know we weren’t about to die. Afterwards, we had a good laugh.

This is what it sounded like that night.

This is what it sounded like that night.

At home, I can hear the Fourth of July celebration eleven miles away in Lake Butler. My neighbors shoot off fireworks every July 4th, New Year’s Eve, or whenever they have a party. Those don’t alarm me. But we Americans can hardly wait until dark for the pyrotechnics to begin, and that night in Djibouti, not only was it well after dark, it was late enough that we were in bed asleep. There’d been no notice of a fireworks display and we never did learn what the occasion was. Someone in the city was celebrating something and fireworks was part of the entertainment. I wonder how many other people woke in alarm that night thinking the city was being bombed.

But it wasn’t. Did my expectations that this part of the world was dangerous cause my reaction? Or was my alarm reasonable? I’ll never forget the terror of the moment, yet I was safe. When I think about people who live in actual war zones, whose days and nights are disturbed, not by festive fireworks, but by actual bombs, my heart goes out to them. If the unexpected sounds of that night remain etched in my mind twelve years later, I can’t begin to imagine what effect it has on those who are exposed to violence on a continuous basis. Here in the USA, we have so much to be grateful for.

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