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HUMMINGBIRDS

August 17, 2019

This far into summer, when I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably become aware of a faint humming sound. It might be emanating from my car. The source may be my computer. The sound could come from a home appliance. But, humming sounds can be natural occurrences. Whales and dolphins beneath the ocean, many varieties of insects, and even the pulsating of heavenly bodies can produce distinctive hums. Some people hear a constant hum caused by the flow of their own blood in the small vessels of their inner ear. The sound is only heard by the person affected. The condition is known as tinnitus.

We might well ask, “What is that humming sound?” This time of year it could be a flurry of hummingbirds.

The last two weeks of August begin a season of frenetic activity for the diminutive hummingbird. On Monday of last week, I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with Clare on our screened back porch overlooking the flower garden. Hummingbirds provided entertainment while we read the newspaper. The tiny, feathered creatures put on quite an aerial display as they competed for the sweet nectar of the flowers and the sugar water in our feeders.

At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, Clare and I again sat on our own back porch.  We were treated to an amazing air show.  As we enjoyed our supper, we witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics.  Agile flying machines were buzzing our yard, staging midair combat maneuvers that would impress even Air Force top guns. Late summer is the prime season for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are always interesting to watch. Their activity increases as the summer days grow shorter.  Their excited pace and almost perpetual motion are at once fascinating and wearying to the observer.

From late August through much of September, the tiny birds become frantic in their feeding habits and combative toward all competitors.  Earlier in the spring and summer, two or three hummingbirds might share the same feeder, but by early autumn they become territorial and will attack any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings squabbling over dessert, the tiny birds quarrel with each other over which one will have the next turn at their sugar water treat.

The flight of the humming creatures with tiny wings provides enthralling entertainment. The hummers put on quite a performance, hovering, darting, and diving, in their heightened frenzy. These warm days are the most active time for hummingbirds as they prepare for their long migration to Central and South America.

A friend who welcomes hummingbirds to her garden with feeders and blooming plants wanted to put fresh flowers in an arrangement for a dinner party at her home.  She cut several late-blooming red gladioli from her cottage garden.  As she did, what she thought was a large buzzing insect began to bother her.  The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath the tresses of her freshly done hair.  The well-appointed lady ran, clutching gladioli tightly in one hand, swatting wildly with the other.

She stopped when the buzzing nuisance confronted her at eye level.  It was a hummingbird, clearly annoyed that the lady had cut the flowers from which it had been feeding.  The woman held the red gladioli at arm’s length as if making a peace offering.  The hummer moved from one blossom to the next in the handheld bouquet, drinking its fill, before flying off without further conflict.

A hummingbird in flight can be easily mistaken for a large stinging insect. The hummingbird’s tiny wings move so rapidly they make a buzzing sound.    This flight pattern, filmed in slow motion, reveals their remarkable ability to speed forward, to hover, and to reverse directions.

Hummingbirds are attracted to a variety of blooms.  Fiery red salvias, cup-shaped hibiscus, and even the common trumpet vine provide nourishment to these tiny creatures that are constantly in search of a meal.  Their frenetic activity demands a continual supply of sugary food.  They sip nectar and can be enticed into view with feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts of water meets the dietary requirements of these small birds.  It is best for the health of hummers if we do not add red food coloring.

Accounts of close encounters between human and hummers abound.  The tiny birds are frequently trapped in garages and on screened porches, usually drawn into these unfriendly confines by something bright red in color.  A red toolbox or a red fire extinguisher can lure a hummingbird into an open garage.  One was even seen attempting to extract nectar from a red plastic bicycle horn.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by a cut flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom in a nursing facility.  The patients all suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  Most of the patients were in the final stage of the illness, sometimes known as the living death.  The nursing staff was unaware of the hummingbird’s presence until they noticed something they rarely saw.  Several of the patients were smiling, some for the first time in months.  With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the tiny bird and release it outdoors.  The bird flew away but not before bestowing a gentle blessing on a room full of people who needed tender mercy.

This year, Clare and I have especially enjoyed watching with our grandchildren the hummingbirds at a feeder just outside our dining room window. The small birds are entertaining to young children as well as to those of us who are senior adults.

One of our granddaughters remarked, “If you want to see a hummingbird, you have to look fast.”

If you pay attention, you may hear a humming sound.

It may be a hummingbird bringing a special blessing just for you.

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DOG DAYS

August 11, 2019

I noticed in a church bulletin last week that a local congregation was celebrating Dog Days with a hot dog lunch after church on Sunday, August 11. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days of summer are traditionally the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, so the congregation timed their event perfectly.

I was saddened to hear the story of a dog that was found by a police officer in a hot car at a shopping mall last week. The officer shattered the car window to rescue the bulldog from the sweltering car. The animal was lying on the passenger seat, panting, wheezing, and unable to move. The officer took the dog to an emergency veterinary clinic before transporting him to the Humane Society. The shelter reported that the dog died due to complications from heat stroke after he was left in the car. The dog’s owner was arrested and charged with animal cruelty,

Earlier this summer, I read the story about a woman who left her miniature schnauzer inside her automobile in a hot parking lot while she spent more than an hour in an air-conditioned beauty salon. Though she left the windows partially opened so her pet would have fresh air, the well-coifed lady returned, only to find that her dog had died. She, too, was charged with animal cruelty.

It makes you wonder why we call these hot, humid days the Dog Days of summer.

How hot is it?

The old clichés can be heard most anywhere folks can find a shady place to sit and complain.

“Hotter than a two-dollar pistol!”

“Hotter than a forty-dollar mule!”

“So hot that when I dug up potatoes in my garden, they were already baked.”

“So hot that we had to feed the hens crushed ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.”

Since I was a boy I have known that the weeks between my mother’s birthday on July 4 and mine near the end of August were the Dog Days of summer. Though the local weather reports indicated a few cooler days last week, I’ve been around long enough to know that the hottest days may still be ahead of us.

How hot has it been?

A friend, with beads of perspiration dripping down his face, grumbled, “It’s hotter than half of Georgia.” He must have meant the half that includes Atlanta, which like Columbia, always seems hotter than any place nearby.

When our daughter lived in Nashville she called to report that on a particularly sweltering day her beagle was missing. After a thorough search of the premises, she found her pup stretched out in the empty cool porcelain bathtub as if waiting for someone to turn on the water. Dogs suffer as much as people do when the temperatures rise into the 90s. They, too, are uncomfortable in the oppressive heat. Dog Days are the time of year to be dog tired or to be as sick as a dog. It is an annual occurrence when otherwise good folks might just go to the dogs or be reduced to leading a dog’s life.

So why is this time of the year referred to as the Dog Days of summer?

If you can find a place where the night sky is unobscured by artificial lights and pollution, the stars are clearly visible.  People of ancient cultures gazed into the heavens, imagining that they were seeing figures depicted in the stars.  It was an ancient version of connecting the dots.  We now call the configurations they saw constellations.         Amazingly, Native Americans, the ancient Chinese, and the people of Greece and Rome all saw similar patterns in the stars.  In these different cultures, separated by oceans, stargazers gave the constellations the same names.  Big and Little Bear to Native Americans were Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to the Greeks.  Ursa means bear.  We know these constellations best as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.  Diverse cultures saw the likeness of a bull in the constellation Taurus, though to Native Americans the bull was a bison.

The Greeks also identified Canis Major and Canis Minor mean Big Dog and Little Dog. The brightest star in Canis Major is Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius was thought to be the shining nose of the dog regarded as the companion of Orion, the hunter constellation. The Dog Star is so brilliant the Romans thought of it as a secondary sun, providing heat to the earth.

To the Greeks and Romans, the Dog Days began in late July, when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun. They continued into late August as long as the Dog Star rose and set with the sun.  They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever or even catastrophe. Ancient people believed that the conjunction of the sun and the Dog Star caused an extended period of hot, muggy weather; hence the name, Dog Days.

Dog Days arrive when the humid weather of summer sets in.  In the old days, this was a time when the pace of life slowed way down, a time when families went to the mountains for cooler temperatures.  People from the Lowcountry came to the Upstate to the resorts like Glenn Springs to escape, not only the sultry days of summer but also the danger of malaria carried by mosquitoes.

Dog Days are no longer a period of inactivity.  Commercially, we have added a tax-free weekend, which has become one of the busiest times for retail shopping, second only to the days after Thanksgiving.  Many schools begin their fall term in the Dog Days of summer at a time when it is almost too hot to go fishing.

Maybe the best way to cope with Dog Days is the old-fashioned way. Back before air conditioning was available, people knew this was a time to take it easy. Sitting outside after the sun went down, spending the night on a sleeping porch, sipping iced tea in the shade, or soaking in a creek were all ways of coping with the heat. Some women kept their perfume bottles in the refrigerator. One man revealed that he placed plastic bags of frozen vegetables between his sheets a few minutes before bedtime.

Clare and I each have reusable ice packs that we keep in the freezer. They are intended to sooth the ordinary aches and pains that are a part of grandparenting.  During the Dog Days, an ice pack provides blessed relief for me after a couple of hours of gardening or for Clare when she takes a break from her work.

Returning from a trip to Tennessee several years ago, Clare and I drove along old United States highway 64, the longest numbered road in North Carolina. It travels 604 miles from the Tennessee state line to the Outer Banks, quite literally from Murphy to Manteo. Dating back to the era of the Model T, this winding two-lane road twists through the North Carolina mountains, into gorges, by rivers and waterfalls, and through quaint towns. A portion of the blue line highway is designated as the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.

I stopped for gasoline at a convenience store near Franklin, North Carolina. As I stood at the counter to pay for a tank of gas, a rough-hewn mountain man ahead of me purchased two cold beers, and then requested a plastic cup and a plastic bowl. When I left the store, I caught a glimpse of the man sitting in the shade of a large sycamore tree. Next to him was a big red dog. The man opened both bottles of beer, pouring one in the cup for himself and the other in the bowl for his pet. As I pumped gasoline into my car, I saw the man finish his beer and the dog lap the bowl dry. Having finished their beers the man and his best friend dog stretched out on the grass beneath the tree for a nap.

Dog Days indeed!

THE STORY OF SMOKEY THE BEAR

August 4, 2019

You have to admire a guy who goes to work every day in blue jeans to tackle one of the toughest jobs on Planet Earth. He accepts his assigned task without complaint, with a passion for his profession that is undiminished, and with a reputation for loyalty and faithfulness that is unblemished. The amazing thing is that he has been on the job, 24/7, for seventy-five years. Commendable in every way, this is a fellow of few words. He utters only one sentence, but for seventy-five years his message has been loud and clear — “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

Smokey the Bear is an advertising mascot created in 1944 to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. During World War II, the Japanese Empire developed a wildfire strategy to set ablaze coastal forests in southwest Oregon. In 1944 and 1945, the Japanese military launched approximately 9,000 fire balloons into the jet stream. As many as ten percent reached the West Coast of the United States. Elementary school teacher Elsie Mitchell and five of her students were killed by one of the bombs near Bly, Oregon, on May 5, 1945.

Though the United States Forest Service fought fires long before World War II, the war brought a sense of urgency to the effort. Since most able-bodied men were already serving in the armed forces, none could be spared to fight forest fires. Fire prevention became a goal. The hope was that if Americans knew how wildfires would harm the war effort, they would better cooperate with the Forest Service to keep fires from starting in the first place.

A bear was chosen as the emblem of the fire prevention campaign. His name was inspired by Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who suffered burns and blindness during a bold 1922 rescue. Joe’s nickname, Smokey, was given to the bear.

Smokey’s debut poster was released on August 9, 1944. In the first poster illustrator Albert Staehle depicted Smokey wearing jeans and a campaign hat. The hat was like that worn by the National Park Service Rangers. Their hat was derived from the cavalry who protected the early national parks. In the poster, Smokey is pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The message underneath read, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” The more familiar slogan, “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires”, was created in 1947 by the Advertising Council.

Recently, one of our granddaughters asked, “Is Smokey a real bear?”

Clare has a first print copy of the 1955 book in the Vintage Children’s Little Golden Books series entitled Smokey the Bear by Jane Werner & Richard Scarry. She remembered that her mother bought it for her in the grocery store years ago. We found the book and read the story to our granddaughter.

In the spring of 1950, a wildfire burned 17,000 acres in the Lincoln National Forest in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. An American black bear cub, separated from his mother, was caught in the fire. He had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. According to the New Mexico State Forestry Division, a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, rescued the bear cub.

At first, he was called Hotfoot Teddy, but he was later renamed Smokey, after the forestry service mascot. The cub’s permanent home became the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  When he arrived at the zoo, several hundred spectators, including members of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, photographers, and media, were there to welcome him.

Smokey the Bear lived at the National Zoo for twenty-six years. During that time he received millions of visitors as well as so many letters addressed to him that in 1964 the United States Postal Service gave him his own zip code. Smokey’s daily diet included bluefish and trout. But the growing bear quickly developed a taste for peanut butter sandwiches.

Smokey died on November 9, 1976. His remains were returned by the government to the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. He was buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The plaque at his grave reads, “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear…the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.”

The Washington Post ran an obituary for Smokey, calling him a transplanted New Mexico native who had resided for many years in Washington, D.C., with long tenure in government service.

A spokesperson for the Advertising Council reports that ninety-four percent of Americans recognize Smokey Bear. He has survived several generations. He has joined Facebook and now has nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter.

The original name was Smokey Bear. That changed in1952 when Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the song “Smokey the Bear.” The writers said, “the” was added to Smokey’s name to keep the song’s cadence.

There is no doubt that Smokey has been an effective advocate for fire prevention. In 1944 about 22 million acres were lost every year to wildfires. Today, the average is down to around 6.7 million acres due in large part to Smokey. Still, there are more than 62,000 wildfires are caused by humans every year in this country.

The iconic bear has made his point through a single slogan that became the watchword of those who love the backcountry. Coined in 1947, Smokey’s message has been recognized by millions for more than five decades. “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Wildfire experts contend that naturally occurring low-intensity fires are necessary to good forestry management. They argue that decades of fire suppression create forests unnaturally dense with fuel. Periodic wildfires are an integral part of the ecosystems depend on natural fires for vitality, rejuvenation, and regeneration. So, in 2001, Smokey’s slogan was officially amended to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” It is also a reminder that other areas, such as grasslands, are in danger of burning.

Smokey has been honored in many ways. The Congress of the United States has protected his name and his image.

The Smokey Bear Awards are presented by the United States Forest Service: “To recognize outstanding service in the prevention of wildfires and to increase public recognition and awareness of the need for continuing fire prevention efforts.”

For Smokey’s 40th anniversary, he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp that pictured a bear cub hanging onto a burned tree.

When I was in elementary school, our class put on a play. I had the part of Smokey the Bear complete with hat, blue jeans, and shovel. With a group of other children, I sang the song.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.

Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air.

He can find a fire before it starts to flame.

That’s why they call him Smokey,

That is how he got his name.

The commercial for his 50th anniversary portrayed woodland animals giving a surprise birthday party for Smokey, featuring a cake with fifty candles. Smokey came to the party blindfolded. He smelled smoke. Unaware that the smoke was from the birthday candles, he leaped into action.  He used his shovel to destroy the cake. When he took off his blindfold, ever the gentleman, he saw his mistake and apologized.

This month Smokey the Bear turns seventy-five years old, and so do I. I warned my family not to put seventy-five candles on my cake. At the very least it would probably set off our smoke alarm. And, who knows? I might just smash the cake with a shovel!

FIRE ANTS AND YELLOW JACKETS

July 28, 2019

In the year 1918, ninety-five years ago, a group of illegal aliens entered this country unnoticed through the port of Mobile, Alabama. These immigrants, stowaways on a ship arriving from South America, soon became migrants, spreading throughout the South.  They were a prolific lot, producing many offspring.  Moving north, east, and west, they eventually reached South Carolina.

I have suffered many unpleasant close encounters of the third kind with these unwelcome invaders. Several years ago, I had a painful meeting with these aliens while I was in my garden. As I was planting daylilies that I had divided, I disturbed a colony of these pesky intruders. Immediately, a swarm of Solenopsis Invicta, black fire ants, boiled up out of the ground covering my left arm.

Fire ants are nasty little critters. They lock their jaws into your flesh and inject venom from the other end, biting and stinging simultaneously.

The United States Army recommends using bleach as first aid. I keep a bottle in my tool shed.  I poured Clorox on both arms, waited a few minutes, then rinsed it off with cool water. I took Benadryl every day the following week and used a lot of cortisone cream. A week later I was still itching from the attack.

As a boy, I was stung by honey bees, sweat bees, or yellow jackets ten or twelve times every summer. A sting is an occupational hazard when cutting grass, hiking, camping, and fishing. My grandfather offered a folk remedy for stings.  He would bite off the end of his cigar, chew it, and then slather the tobacco juice on the wound.

Over time, I have developed an allergy to stinging insects.  As a precaution, I now carry a sting kit that includes Benadryl and a prescription hypodermic of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline. The kit also contains a regular shaker of powdered meat tenderizer, which neutralizes the venom of a stinging insect by breaking down the protein.

Insect stings can be deadly. More people die in the United States every year from insect stings than poisonous snake bites or shark attacks.

An allergy to stinging insects keeps you on your toes. A general rule is to expose as little skin as possible and to use insect repellent during the warm months.

I completely gave up using aftershave when my allergy was diagnosed. Instead, I use unscented rubbing alcohol, which doesn’t attract anything. I also gave up short-sleeve shirts and short pants. Believe me; the world is better for it.

More than thirty years ago I traveled with a group of twenty-three men on a rafting trip down the Nolichucky River. As I stepped out of the van at the outfitter in Erwin, Tennessee, even before we started down the river, a yellow jacket stung me on the leg.  One of the men, who happened to have a wad of chewing tobacco, applied the familiar poultice.   It didn’t help at all.

It was then that I began to experience my first severe allergic reaction.  My whole body turned fiery red, golf-ball-size knots developed beneath the skin on the back of my head and neck, and my breathing became labored. There in the remote Blue Ridge, by a mountain river, I was in trouble!

Fortunately, among the twenty-three men were my family doctor, a cardiologist, an anesthesiologist, and two pharmaceutical representatives. Before I could turn around, they had given me a dose of Benadryl.  The cardiologist, family physician, and anesthesiologist all recognized that I was having a severe anaphylactic reaction.

The three physicians and I climbed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and rumbled along a rugged logging road over a mountain to a drugstore in Erwin.  We were a motley crew, dressed as we were for a day of rafting. When my physician demanded the appropriate medications of cortisone, epinephrine, and two hypodermic needles, I am sure the pharmacist thought it was a holdup.  The pharmacist only blinked until my family doctor pulled out his wallet and presented his medical credentials.  The cardiologist monitored my pulse, the anesthesiologist my breathing. Spread out on the drugstore floor, I received a shot of cortisone in one arm and a shot of adrenaline in the other.  Soon, I was just fine.

The anesthesiologist revealed how relieved he was when he saw that I was recovering.  He chuckled, “We had drawn straws to see who might have to give you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  I got the short straw.”

By the time we made our way back to the river, I was all revved up for the trek. I don’t believe the three doctors who had jumped in the raft with me had to paddle much at all. I was so pumped up on adrenaline that I rowed nonstop all day long.  I had so much cortisone in me that I never felt sore.

Three years after our experience on the Nolichucky River, the anesthesiologist and I were regular fishing buddies. One warm spring morning we were headed to a trout stream that held great promise.  As he drove his old Jeep on a backcountry road in North Carolina, an insect flew into the open window and lit on the dashboard in front of me. It looked like a yellow jacket on steroids with its long distinctive black and yellow markings on the abdomen. Though I didn’t know what the insect was, I did know that it was not a good traveling companion.

My friend quickly pulled the Jeep over to the side of the road and stopped.  He reached out his hand and grabbed that insect, which immediately stung him.  He then threw the critter out the window, scraped the sting with his pocketknife, and applied some ointment to the spot.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Listen.  I barely avoided giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation three years ago.  I didn’t want to put myself in that situation again.  Besides, I really want to go trout fishing today. If you get stung, it’s a big deal.  If I get stung, we can still fish.”

The last time a yellow jacket stung me was moments before I was to conduct a graveside funeral service. The yellow and black insect was nestled inside a floral wreath, an expression of sympathy to the family of the dearly departed. As I stood close to the casket, the insect nailed me on the bottom lip.

The funeral director and the soloist, both aware of my allergy, wondered if I might resign my role as pastor and join the ranks of the deceased. A good friend stood close by with my emergency shot. It had been more than ten years since my last sting, the one at the funeral was what allergists label a free sting. That is to say that after a long time between stings, the next one is unlikely to cause a severe reaction.

Fire ant stings are, so far, not nearly as serious for me as those of yellow jackets. Still, those tiny ants pack a wallop and deliver several days of discomfort.

Recently, I learned that pyramid ants and fire ants are natural enemies. In fact, the favorite food of the pyramid variety is fire ants. The pyramid ants thrive in sunny, open spaces, usually near the nests of other kinds of ants. Their nests – small craters that resemble tiny volcanoes – are easily recognized.

I have decided to be more selective in using ant killers, eliminating only the stinging fire ants. Pyramid ants have an open invitation to my place. The buffet is always open. Come and get it!

FUNERAL HUMOR

July 20, 2019

My friend Father Rob Brown and I together conducted the memorial service for Joe Crook. Joe was the purveyor of some of the finest barbecue in the Upstate. Prior to the celebration of Joe’s life I said to the family, “I can’t imagine having a memorial for Joe without humor. He enjoyed a good story and a good laugh as much as anyone.”

Some find humor at a funeral to be inappropriate. I personally find humor in the face of death to be a tender mercy and a gentle blessing. Folks who have experienced deep grief know that comic relief is a welcome shift. If all we do is cry, bereavement quickly becomes oppressive.

Recently, a former church member sent an e-mail containing tombstone inscriptions collected from old cemeteries. One of my favorites from the extensive list was this.

 

From East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia

Here lies Ezekial Aikle

Age 102.

Only the Good Die Young

 

After more than fifty-three years of pastoral ministry, I have accumulated an interesting collection of graveyard stories.

Every mortician and every pastor knows that funerals are fraught with opportunities for things to go awry. A funeral is a somber time, a time to attend to the needs of the bereaved, a time to be serious, reverent, and, well, funereal. Still, the final service for a dearly departed loved one can be the occasion for humor.

The late Reverend Grady Nutt, a friend from my seminary days, was dubbed on the television program “Hee-Haw” as the Prime Minister of Humor. Grady was a master storyteller whose favorite targets were other preachers, men and women of the cloth.

He told the story about a young pastor who conducted his first graveside funeral during a Texas rainstorm. Things went pretty well in spite of the steady downpour until the closing prayer. The novice minister was speaking loudly to the Almighty when he suddenly fell silent. After a few moments, some of the gathered faithful cautiously opened their eyes. The young cleric had vanished from sight. It seems he stepped too close to the muddy grave and slid, feet first, under the suspended casket into the vault below.

Even a seasoned pastor can make embarrassing mistakes at funerals. A dear friend and colleague had to do two funerals on the same day, each for a fine man in his congregation. One of the deceased had been an outstanding high school and college athlete who spent most of life as a coach. The other had been a more reticent, studious young man who had become successful in the financial world. The first was an avid sports fan; the second had little interest in sports.

In the second funeral of the day, my colleague started eulogizing the wrong man. He waxed eloquent about the athletic prowess of a person who had never participated in organized sports. When the pastor caught himself, realizing his mistake, he apologized and added, “He always wished he could have been a great athlete.”

A recent seminary graduate, newly ordained, accepted his first pastorate in a rural area in northern Spartanburg County. Soon after his arrival at the church, he was asked to conduct a funeral for an elderly man. He was a longtime member of the church but had been unable to attend services in several years because of ill health. The family explained that the funeral service was to be graveside at the family cemetery located at the old home place in southern Union County. The service was to be brief and would be followed by a covered dish dinner provided by the good folks at a nearby church.

The young pastor was nervous as he prepared for his first funeral. He rehearsed the service in his mind as he followed a set of complicated directions to the remote home. He became hopelessly lost on the back roads of Union County near Sumter National Forest.

Finally, almost by accident, he came upon an old house. As he turned down the long driveway, he could see two men under the shade of a large oak tree. The men appeared to be gravediggers. One stood beside a backhoe; the other leaned on a shovel.

The young pastor approached the two men. Though his dark suit and the Bible in his hand gave him away, he still felt the need to explain that he was a pastor.

“Is the family here?” the minister inquired.

“Nope, just left.”

“I see,” the pastor said, embarrassed that he was so tardy.

“Please give me a few minutes,” he requested.

With that, the pastor moved to a freshly dug hole, noticing that the concrete vault was already closed. He read a passage of scripture. Though he dispensed with his prepared sermon, he offered a lengthy prayer. He thanked the men for their patience and drove on to the church for the covered dish dinner.

As the young pastor took his leave, the man next to the backhoe lit a cigarette. He turned to the man leaning on the shovel and said, “I’ve been in this business for thirty years, but this is the first time I have ever seen anybody read the Bible and pray over a septic tank!”

Mr. Jack was my father-in-law.  He was a storyteller, with a quick wit and a wry smile that endeared him to almost everyone.  His speech was as colorful as my grandfather’s, salted with Southern witticisms and profanity.  Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, Mr. Jack and I had a private conversation.  His acceptance of his impending death was evident.  “This path that I’m on is getting mighty narrow.  I don’t believe I’m going to be able to turn around this time.”

He asked me to conduct his funeral.  He said, “Kirk, you’re going to have to look out for Lib (his wife, my mother-in-law).  She’s going to need help, and I know I can count on you.”

I felt the burden of that responsibility, but I would not have had it any other way.  He told me that he had written two letters to the family.  One was to be read immediately after his death before arrangements were made for his funeral.  The other letter was to be read immediately after his funeral.  I would find both letters inside a ledger in the top right hand drawer of his rolltop desk.

Two weeks later Mr. Jack died. The family gathered the morning after his death, and I read the first letter aloud.  He had included so much of himself, so much humor, that we laughed together for nearly an hour.  His directions on finding pallbearers were especially funny.  “Now that I’m gone,” he wrote, “they may all refuse to attend.  But they all owe me in one way or another.”

He went on to say, “Kirk, I know you’re a Baptist preacher, but you may have to give them bourbon whiskey if they’re to be pallbearers. They’ll do better if they’re liquored up.”

With that first letter, Mr. Jack had established an attitude of joy for his own funeral. The men agreed to be pallbearers, and I didn’t have to get them liquored up. They took care of that themselves.

The family went to the local mortuary in the small town where Clare’s parents lived to make the funeral arrangements for Mr. Jack.  We selected a polished pine casket because he had enjoyed woodworking. The funeral director then showed us a selection of vaults.

“We have three to choose from,” he said in a somber tone.

“What is the difference?” I inquired.

Pointing to the top one he said, “This is our top-of-the-line model.” He paused and added, “It comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

I stared at him in amazement. “Whose lifetime are we talking about?”

He stammered, “I don’t really know.”

“How can a vault have a lifetime guarantee?”

“No one has ever asked that.  That’s just what they told me to say.”

We purchased the bottom-of-the-line model.

You can imagine the laughter in Mr. Jack’s service when I told the story of the vault selection.  You may also be able to imagine the chagrin of the funeral director.

Following the drive back from the burial in the country churchyard, I again gathered the family to read the second letter.  We could hardy wait.  It was a sweet, touching letter about his love for each of us.  He included a section on how he had tried to provide for his wife and his children.  Then this line, “Lib, I believe there will be enough for you to live out your days in contentment and comfort.  You will not be able to live in the lap of luxury, and there is certainly not enough for you to have a live-in boyfriend.  If you take up with somebody, I may have to come back and straighten things out.”

The wisdom of the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Laughter is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, it has no adverse side effects. There is, as Scripture affirms, “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”

In my experience, grief is a time for both.

THE TRUTH IS A BEAUTIFUL THING

July 14, 2019

Sir Walter Scott, the famous Scottish author, wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

The people of the United States are currently enduring what may well be one of the most contentious periods in American history. Approval ratings for the representatives of both political parties indicate widespread distrust by the citizens of our country. There is an overload of blaming and name-calling on every side.

Most historians agree that the first casualty of war is the truth. Truth has certainly been a casualty of this political climate.

My mother’s punishment of choice was to wash out my mouth with yellow Octagon soap whenever I said a bad word, spoke ugly to or about another person, or told a lie. She often repeated my granny’s refrain, “The truth is a beautiful thing.”  Granny was using a quote commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I recall a scene in the motion picture A Few Good Men. One exchange between actors Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson becomes especially heated. Nicholson, a marine colonel, is testifying in a military court-martial. Cruise is an attorney in the Navy. The two men yell at each other.

“I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth.”

Then, as so often happens, the truth comes out.

I was taught that the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” was more than a courtroom rule. It was for everyday life. Before I ever saw an episode of Perry Mason or Matlock on television, I was taught to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God. My grandfather used to say, “Always tell the truth even when it hurts, and a lot of times it will.”

More than the continuous friction that produces more heat than light, the thing that bothers me most about our current political discourse is the poor example being set for young Americans. Has disregard for the truth become our national norm? Or does the first point of the Boy Scout Law hold any sway? A scout is, first of all, trustworthy.

One of the most intriguing guests to appear on the television program To Tell the Truth was Frank Abagnale. The show featured Gary Moore as host and regular panelists Bill Cullen, Kitty Carlisle, and Peggy Cass. Three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, were brought onstage.  Only one was telling the truth; the other two were not. The panel was to discern, by asking questions, who was truthful and who was lying. When Frank Abagnale appeared as a guest on the program in 1977, he was the truth-teller. He was, however, the greatest imposter of them all.

Frank Abagnale wrote Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of A Real Fake, his autobiography. In the Steven Spielberg movie based on the book, Leonardo De Caprio plays the part of Frank. When this true crime story first appeared in print in 1980, it made the list of best sellers in The New York Times Book Review.

In a period of five years, Frank Abagnale passed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. He did it by perpetrating one scam after another. He impersonated an airline pilot traveling around the world in the cockpit of jets, even taking over the controls. He also played the role of a pediatrician and faked his way into the position of temporary resident supervisor at a hospital in Georgia. Posing as a lawyer, he passed the Louisiana bar exam and conned his way into a position in the State Attorney General’s office.  He taught a semester of college-level sociology with a fake degree from Columbia University.

In reality, Frank was a teenage high school dropout following his parent’s divorce. At first, his con game was a matter of survival. Then he became enamored with the challenge and the ego trip that came with playing important men. Both the book and the movie treat with humor his years of impersonations, swindles, and felonies. Abagnale was arrested and convicted of his crimes.  He was released from prison after five years on the condition that he would cooperate with the government apprehending counterfeiters.

Most of us have taken our share of true-false quizzes during our school years. The simple fact is, we take them every day. Mark Twain said, “Lying is mankind’s most universal weakness.”

While those who are paid to do fact-checking of our politicians are busy trying to keep up with an avalanche of falsehoods, half-truths, or misleading statements, the rest of us have an obligation to model truthfulness and honesty for our children and grandchildren. That is not always easy. Consider the predicament of one pastor trying to teach his children the Biblical admonition to speak the truth in love.

The pastor had been trying diligently to teach his two children, an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, to tell the truth.  One Sunday, after the morning worship service, his children were by his side when an elderly woman from the congregation presented him with a homemade cake. He took the cake home where his wife engaged him in conversation.

“Who made the cake?” she asked.

“Mrs. Hawthorne. It’s her famous red velvet cake,” the pastor replied.

“We won’t be able to eat it,” his wife said. “Just throw it away.”

“Why can’t we eat it?” the surprised reverend asked.

“It will be full of cat hair.  You’ve been in her home.  She has five or six cats.  They walk all over the kitchen counters. She calls it red velvet cake, but it’s actually a cat hair cake.”

The skeptical pastor cut the cake. His children eagerly watched. Sure enough, the cake was full of cat hair.  The thick icing was laced with feline fur. Even the red velvet cake was loaded with kitty fuzz. The disappointed children sighed. The sullied confection was tossed into the trash.

The following Sunday, the children were again standing by their father’s side as he greeted people at the church door.  Mrs. Hawthorne asked, “Preacher, did you like that red velvet cake?”

Now the pastor was in a quandary. Fully aware that his children were listening for his answer, the quick-thinking dad responded, “I’ll tell you the truth, Mrs. Hawthorne. A cake like that just doesn’t last very long around our house!”

The truth really is a beautiful thing.

HOMEGROWN TOMATOES

July 8, 2019

Last Friday I purchased three Cherokee purple tomatoes from Bellew’s Market on Garner Road in Spartanburg. Clare and I enjoyed good tomato sandwiches all weekend. This morning good friends showed up at our front door with a box of homegrown tomatoes. It is that time of year when tomatoes are at their peak in color and in flavor.

Before I retired I was often asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explained. “I have more fresh vegetables without a garden than I ever had when I planted a garden of my own.”

Church members kindly shared the bounty of their gardens with our household.  Sometimes we would know who to thank.  At other times, these gifts were left, anonymously, on our doorstep.

Dave Sikma is an Illinois farmer who plants two dozen or more tomato plants in his garden. Dave is our daughter Betsy’s father-in-law. He told me that the first time Betsy visited their farm she plucked several bright green tomatoes from his plants and prepared fried green tomatoes for the family. Dave was not so impressed with this Southern delicacy. His opinion was that the fruit is best when left on the vine to ripen as the good Lord intended.

When Clare and I traveled to our family vacation at Pawleys Island, we often stopped for lunch at Thomas Café, one of our favorite eateries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Clare usually ordered shrimp and grits while I selected flounder. Both plates were served with a side of fried green tomatoes.

A lifelong devotee of this distinctly Southern fare, I would search high and low for unripe tomatoes during our week at Pawleys. At roadside stands in the summertime green tomatoes are as scarce as hen’s teeth. In hot weather, even tomatoes that are picked green in the early morning soon start turning pink. Good fried tomatoes require the use of bright green fruit that is as firm as a potato. Absolutely no pink!

Here is my recipe for fried green tomatoes. Caution: these have a kick and the preparation is messy. The flavor is worth it!

Kirk’s Spicy Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic Southern recipe. There are many variations. This is our favorite.

4 large green tomatoes, (all green, no pink, hard as a rock)

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cornmeal

Crushed red pepper flakes

Garlic powder

Coarsely ground salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Red pepper hummus

Jalapeño pimento cheese

Sour cream or goat cheese

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Dredging:

  • Slice tomatoes 1/2 inch thick. Discard the ends.
  • You need to use four bowls.
  • Into the first bowl pour only half of the buttermilk, and dip tomato slices.
  • Into the second bowl put the flour only. Lightly dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • Into the third bowl whisk eggs and the rest of the buttermilk together, and dip tomato slices covering both sides.
  • In the fourth bowl mix cornmeal with red pepper flakes, garlic powder, coarsely ground salt, and freshly ground pepper, and thoroughly coat tomato slices on both sides.

Cooking:

  • In a large skillet, pour vegetable oil (enough so that there is 1/2 inch of oil in the pan) and bring to medium heat.
  • Place tomato slices, coated in batter, into the frying pan in small batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Fry a few at a time.
  • Do not crowd the tomatoes. Give them plenty of room! They should not touch each other.
  • When the tomatoes are lightly brown, flip and fry them on the other side.
  • Drain them on paper towels.

Serving:

  • On individual plates, spoon a heaping tablespoon of roasted red pepper hummus.
  • Place the first fried green tomato in the hummus.
  • Stack the fried green tomatoes three or four high with a spoonful of jalapeño pimento cheese between slices.
  • Top with a dollop of sour cream. Goat cheese is also good on top.

We always enjoy delicious red tomatoes served in various ways. Some folks swear by tomato pie. Others prefer the summer delight in salads of many varieties.

My specialty is Neely Soggy Tomato Sandwiches. In years past this was the sandwich of choice at the annual Neely Family Fourth of July Picnic. In our home, we always enjoy this favorite kitchen sink sandwich while tomatoes are in season.

2 vine-ripe tomatoes

Duke’s Real Mayonnaise

6 slices of white bread

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

  • Take six slices of white bread. Don’t use anything that is good for you – just plain ole white sandwich bread.
  • Slather Duke’s Real Mayonnaise heavily on all six slices. Only use Duke’s. Use about twice as much mayonnaise as you ordinarily would.
  • Grind fresh black pepper on all six pieces of bread.
  • Stack thinly-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes three layers deep on three pieces of the bread.
  • Salt the tomato slices.
  • Mash – not lightly press – the remaining three pieces of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomatoes.
  • Turn the sandwiches over and mash again.
  • Cut the three sandwiches in half. Let them come to room temperature.
  • Stand over the kitchen sink to enjoy these juicy sandwiches.

Until a hundred years ago some people thought the tasty red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown exclusively as an ornamental garden plant. The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to a strange plant family. A nightshade plant, from the Latin word solanum, it includes the matura, mandrake, and belladonna, all considered poisonous.

Close relatives are paprika, chili pepper, potato, tobacco, and petunia. The unpleasant odor of tomato leaves and stems contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for human consumption.

Tomatoes originated as wild plants in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Gradually, they were carried north into Central America. Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, the tomato was slow to be adopted as a cultivated plant by Native Americans. Mayans used the fruit in their cooking. Tomatoes were grown in Mexico by the sixteenth century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century introduced the tomato to Europe. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and eat tomatoes. Later the tomato was grown in English and Spanish gardens, not as food, but as a curiosity. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour, translated as love apple in English.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina. They may have been introduced to our area from the Caribbean. By the mid-eighteenth century, tomatoes were grown on numerous Carolina plantations. Even then, they may have only been of ornamental interest.

Tomatoes were grown as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, no doubt because of French influence. Thomas Jefferson learned of tomatoes in France. The progressive Virginia farmer grew them at Monticello as early as 1781.

Tomatoes are now the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, tomatoes have a reputation for out-producing the needs of the grower, thereby encouraging the sharing of garden bounty.

Tomatoes are regarded as one of the healthiest foods in our diet.  Rich in vitamins A and C, tomatoes contain lycopene, a chemical that gives them, as well as watermelons and red grapefruit, their color. Lycopene, an antioxidant, helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Although the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is also considered a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts claim that we need five to ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. At this time of year, we should all take advantage of local homegrown tomatoes to meet our daily quota.

Tomatoes are my special favorite.  Several years ago I wrote these lines as an expression of my gratitude.

 

God is great. God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His hand we all are fed.

Give us, Lord, our daily bread;

 

Wholegrain bread, rye, or lite,

A sourdough loaf, or just plain white.

And please, dear Lord, some Duke’s mayonnaise,

And homegrown tomatoes for these summer days.

 

Add lettuce, and bacon, or maybe cheese,

But especially, Lord, I ask You please,

For vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced thick and round,

To make the best sandwich I’ve ever found.

 

On days that grow weary with muggy heat,

A soggy tomato sandwich just can’t be beat.

With a tall glass of something cold to drink,

I’ll eat my lunch over the kitchen sink.

 

I’m grateful for corn, that good Silver Queen,

For cantaloupe, peaches, and fresh green beans,

For squash, and okra, and small red potatoes,

But nothing is better than homegrown tomatoes.

 

God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

I know His kindness never ends

When given tomatoes by special friends.