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October 26, 2014

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. My friends and I looked forward to the carnival at the elementary school we attended. Halloween was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick-or-treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed a second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star. Those were the houses he returned to later in the evening.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.

I am not sure when the innocence of the holiday was lost, but, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, the Grinch tried to steal Halloween. Due to the general malice of some people, trick-or-treating turned violent. Vandalism replaced tricks. Some treats even became serious threats. Needles and razor blades were hidden in candy and in apples. Read more…


October 19, 2014

Each year, Clare and I go on an annual pumpkin search. Two years ago we were late getting started on our venture. We wound up buying pumpkins from a grocery store. Last year our quest led us to James Cooley’s Strawberry Hill peach shed.

Our preference is to buy pumpkins from a church group that uses the proceeds to fund mission endeavors. St. Matthews Episcopal Church and Trinity Methodist Church have been preferred locations through the years.

Last Friday we found ourselves in Simpsonville on another errand. Quite by accident, as we crossed the railroad tracks, we happened upon the pumpkin patch operated by Holy Cross Episcopal Church. The workers there told me the proceeds would go to Habitat for Humanity. We came home with four large bright orange beauties and six smaller ones. On Tuesday night we delivered pumpkins to our in-town grandchildren.

Every October television brings us the now classic animated film, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Late in the month, the Charles Schultz cartoon character, Linus, begins his annual search for the most sincere pumpkin patch. Linus is the one and only true believer. He steadfastly clings to the hope that on Halloween night the Great Pumpkin will visit the selected pumpkin patch bringing Halloween gifts to boys and girls who really believe.

The Great Pumpkin, as Linus imagines him, combines the characteristics of a large pumpkin, a scarecrow, and Santa Claus.  Each year Linus, clutching his security blanket, skips trick-or-treating in order to wait patiently for the enormous benevolent fruit to rise from the pumpkin patch.  Each year, his undying faith subjects him to ridicule by his peers.

The good folk of Allardt, Tennessee, host an annual Great Pumpkin Festival.  Located just northwest of Knoxville, the small town, on the weekend of the festival, swells in size, not unlike the pumpkins that are entered in the contest that give the event its name.  In 2004, Wallace Simmons won the weigh-in with a mammoth 852-pound entry.  Wallace hauled his prize pumpkin over the Smoky Mountains from his home in Canton, North Carolina. The 2005 winner was also grown by Simmons on his farm in Canton.  It set a new festival record at 854 pounds.

Across the country in San Mateo County, California, Joel Holland of Puyallup, Washington, won the 2004 World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.  His Atlantic Giant pumpkin, grown on the Pacific coast, tipped the five-ton capacity scales at 1229 pounds.  In October 2005, Holland again won the event at Half Moon Bay, California.  This year’s entry weighed exactly the same as last year’s winner, 1229 pounds.  The prize money is calculated at five dollars per pound, so Joel Holland was awarded $6,145.

Last year, 2013, Gary Miller of Napa, California, won the competition with a 1,985-pound pumpkin.

This year another resident of Napa broke the North American record for heaviest pumpkin with his prize-winning behemoth of 2,058 pounds at the annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. John Hawkley won $13,358 — $6 per pound for his pumpkin plus $1,000 for a California record. His pumpkin was shy of the 238 pounds needed to break the current world record-holder in Germany at 2,296 pounds.

The California drought played a role in this year’s competition because pumpkin growers had to contend with state water restrictions. Most growers planted fewer pumpkins in order to comply with the restrictions.

The pumpkin weigh-off begins a week of events culminating in the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. The celebration includes a Great Pumpkin parade, pumpkin pie-eating contest, costume contests, and a pumpkin carving competion.

Pumpkins are a kind of squash.  The variety usually cultivated for its massive size is the Atlantic Giant.  When asked his secret for growing the gigantic squash, Joel Holland credited specially prepared soil, abundant fertilizer, copious watering, and meticulous hand pollination.  Then he added, “I saved the seed from last year’s pumpkin.”

In our family, the main pumpkin activity was not growing large squash; it was carving jack-o-lanterns.

The name jack-o-lantern dates from seventeenth century England, when it literally meant a man with a lantern or a night watchman. By the early 1800s, jack-o-lantern had also become the popular name for a turnip lantern. Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire described the jack-o-lantern as “a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it.”

Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o-lanterns to North America. Because pumpkins were more available, they were used instead of turnips. In the nineteenth century pumpkin carving became a Halloween tradition all across the United States.

Our five children enjoyed the artistic endeavor each year even after they were self-conscious teenagers. The tradition continues even now that they are adults with their own families.  We usually purchased several large orange, well-shaped pumpkins and reserved a family night for the project.  Design sketches were drawn and redrawn until consensus was reached.  Adult supervision was required for the actual carving. After the seeds were removed from the pumpkins, Clare would toast the seeds on a cookie sheet and serve them with milk as our family night snack.

One year, Betsy asked, “Daddy, can we carve a girl pumpkin this year?”  Her four older brothers had been the chief designers in earlier years.  We all agreed that one of our pumpkins should be a girl.  We selected the largest, most perfectly shaped pumpkin. Betsy led the design team creating a drawing including puckered lips, long eyelashes, arched eyebrows, and earlobes with earrings.  The detailed pattern required a smaller, sharper knife, so the actual carving was up to me.  Carving a jack-o-lantern had always been a slapdash job for me.  Triangle eyes, triangle nose, crooked, snaggled-toothed smiling mouth, and slashed eyebrows were less than precise.

Betsy’s girl pumpkin took much longer to fashion than usual. We carefully cut away small pieces until the pumpkin had an unmistakably feminine countenance.  The project was successful, and the Jill-o-Lantern took her place on our front porch, illuminated from within by a votive candle.  Betsy dubbed her creation The Great Girl Pumpkin.

As Halloween approached the following year, Betsy asked, “Hey, Daddy, we need to have another Great Girl Pumpkin this year.”

Remembering the effort that went into the Jill-o-lantern the year before, I teased, “Betsy, I didn’t save any seed.”

“Daddy, even if you had saved seed, we couldn’t grow a pumpkin that was already carved. Besides, Mama toasted the seeds, and we ate all of them. But I’m not worried, I know you can do it again.”

Like Linus, our daughter is a true believer.


October 12, 2014
Fall Leaves

I sat on our screened-in porch, an eyewitness as the back edge of summer gave way to the front side of fall. Purple finch, blackcap chickadees, gray titmouse, and bright red cardinals took turns at the black oil sunflower seeds in the feeder suspended over the barn door. A procession of butterflies, including two orange monarchs, fluttered above pink begonias pausing to sip nectar from the blue flower spikes of yellow and crimson coleus plants. Across the yard a large yellow tiger swallowtail feasted on late blooming purple hyssop. A few pale yellow and pink roses put on their final display. The Japanese maple was already cloaked in deep red while the weeping cherry was dropping leaves in a gentle breeze.
Fall is one of my four favorite times of the year. Sitting on the porch I feel peacefully energized and far more renewed than if I had attended a week-long revival in a Baptist church – far more.
This is a time for a drive to the mountains. Clare and I often travel up the Saluda Grade for a brief retreat. We usually purchase a few pumpkins and several varieties of apples along the way. After a picnic lunch we sometimes pause to enjoy a Carolina blue sky with only a few high clouds drifting above. The southern Appalachian highlands are all the more exhilarating if there is a nip in the air, and the vast forest is ablaze with color. Perched on the tailgate of my pickup truck at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway is better than having a seat on the fifty-yard line at any football game. Read more…


October 5, 2014

The world is filled with cat lovers. From ancient Egypt where they were first domesticated to the exotic Persian cats, the animals have been revered. They are thought to be the most popular pets in the world. Many of our friends are cat people, some house four or five cats in their homes – the very definition of house cat.
Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber the Broadway musical Cats won numerous awards including a Tony as the best musical. As of this year it is the second longest running musical on Broadway.
Suffice it to say, many people love and enjoy cats.
I am fascinated by the big cats on the National Geographic television channel. I enjoy watching the Panthers, the Lions, the Bengals, and the Jaguars of the National Football League. I can tolerate cats around the house as long as they stay outside, hunt rodents for their keep, and leave the birds alone.
Since we were married Clare and I have pretty much agreed that cats were not our favorite pets. Clare just downright does not like cats, inside or out.
I have learned that when Clare senses something is amiss, I need to pay attention to her. While house hunting in Winston-Salem, we visited one picturesque abode. We got no further than the front door when Clare said, “Yuck! The previous family had cats! Many cats!”
We purchased a different home, further out in the country near the old Moravian settlement of Pfafftown, North Carolina. We had no sooner moved into our new domicile, when our first visitor appeared on our doorstep. He was a very large cat, as white as Martha White’s self-rising flour, and as wild as a March hare. We were told by neighbors that the cat belonged to the previous owners of the house. Read more…


September 27, 2014
Morris Island

Last weekend the Spartanburg Herald-Journal carried an excellent piece by Susanne M. Schafer writing for the Associated Press. The article reminded all residents of South Carolina of “the devastation wrought by their worst storm in the past century – and to be ready in case another such tempest comes.”

Hurricane Hugo took aim at Charleston Harbor like a bull’s-eye twenty-five years ago on September 21, 1989. Landfall occurred just before midnight as a category four storm. The hurricane was thirty-five miles wide with winds in excess of one hundred and thirty-eight miles per hour. The coast north of Charleston was pounded by storm surges up to twenty feet above normal. Hugo wreaked havoc across the state, packing hurricane force winds into the Upstate.

Hugo left 60,000 people in the state homeless, 270,000 temporarily unemployed, and 54,000 state residents seeking disaster assistance. Many were without power for more than a month.

My brother Bill was pastor of Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church in Hanahan, South Carolina, just twenty miles north of Charleston. South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell had ordered 250,000 people to evacuate the Charleston area on the morning of September 21. Bill apparently didn’t get the memo. He and a group of his church members rode out the storm in the basement of the home of one of the parishioners. He described the fury of the storm and then the eerie silence as the eye passed overhead. Some in the group stepped outside. Bill said in the middle of the eye there was stillness and a star-filled sky. Then the back edge of the storm approached. Back in the safety of the basement the group experienced a greater fury from Hugo than before. When Bill told me about the experience he said, “I’ll never do that again!”

Because Hugo remained a hurricane during its trip across the Palmetto state, towns inland from the coast reported widespread damage. Spartanburg experienced the results as motels and emergency shelters filled to capacity. It was a state-wide emergency that compelled many to take action.

I watched the video taken all along the South Carolina coast by a cameraman in Governor Carroll Campbell’s airplane. As the footage moved toward Charleston Harbor, I was especially interested to look for the Morris Island Lighthouse. At high tide, Morris Island is no more, but the 161-foot brick tower built in 1876 was still standing. That lighthouse became, for me, a symbol of the resilience of the people of our state. Read more…


September 21, 2014

An emergency room nurse told me about a patient who came to the hospital in the middle of the night with an apparent kidney stone.  After some preliminary tests, she handed the man a small plastic cup and said, “I need a specimen.”

She left the room for a few minutes.  Upon her return the man was sitting with the empty cup in his hand.  He did not understand her request.

She tried to clarify.  “Can you make water?” she asked.

“No, Ma’am,” he said. “I lay brick.”

Laying brick is not as easy as it may seem.

In the High Hills of the Santee stands the historic Church of the Holy Cross, also known as the Holy Cross Episcopal Church. General Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero known as the Gamecock, donated the land on which the church was built. The remarkable structure is a notable example of Gothic Revival design, featuring a cruciform floor plan, corner towers, and pointed arches. The walls were constructed of pisé de terre or rammed earth.

When Clare and I visited the church, I commented on the unusual building material. Why they didn’t use brick instead of packing earth to build the old church? The answer is that there was no red clay in those sandy hills. Read more…

When All Else Fails Try Duct Tape

September 14, 2014

The troubled space flight of Apollo 13 has been chronicled in a movie starring Tom Hanks.  A real-life drama in space began with the unforgettable words, radioed back to earth by Jack Swigert, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here!”

On route to the moon, the command module was shaken by an explosion. The crew evacuated the space capsule and entered the attached lunar landing module, using it as a lifeboat. The square carbon dioxide filters from Apollo 13’s failed command module had to be modified to fit round receptacles in the lunar landing module. The challenge was the proverbial problem – how to fit a square peg into a round hole. Without the modification, the three astronauts would have perished in space.

On the ground in Houston, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration responded. Ed Smylie, chief of NASA, and mission control engineers, designed the modification using duct tape. Following the directions relayed from Houston, the Apollo 13 crew made the repairs using their own roll of duct tape. The filters started working, saving the lives of the three astronauts on board. Later, Ed said that he knew the problem was solvable when the crew confirmed that duct tape was on board the spacecraft.

“I felt like we were home free.” Ed Smylie, a native of Mississippi, quipped, “One thing a Southern boy will never say is ‘I don’t think duct tape will fix that.'” Read more…


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