Skip to content

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!

Advertisements

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.

REFLECTIONS ON INDEPENDENCE DAY

July 1, 2019

On July 4, my family and I will celebrate the birthday of our granddaughter, Allie Louise Neely. Allie is named for her maternal great grandmother, Allie Dunn, and for my mother, her paternal great grandmother, Anna Louise Neely. My mother was born on July 4, 1922.

When I was a little boy, I was impressed that, on Mama’s birthday, everybody took the day off. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the family farm for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes bit more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic, those who knew the selection repeated it by heart. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The importance of the Declaration can be underestimated even by the most loyal Americans. Students in a sociology class designed a research project. They printed out the words of the Declaration of Independence and placed copies of the document on clipboards. Without identifying the document as the Declaration, the students invited people at a shopping mall, to read and sign the petition. Most people refused to sign their name. They thought the document was too radical and would incite too much conflict.

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few residents of the Palmetto State can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document. They were Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., and Arthur Middleton.

In 1956, Paul Harvey, in “The Rest of the Story” radio broadcast, prsented a moving editorial about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The following is my summary.

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Ben Franklin, seventy years old, was the eldest among the fifty-six signers. Eighteen were under forty; three were in their twenties. Almost half were judges and lawyers. Eleven were merchants, nine were landowners and farmers, and twelve were doctors, ministers, and politicians.

With few exceptions, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, these were men of wealth.  All but two had families. They were educated and well respected.

Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. John Hancock, one of the richest men in America, already had a price on his head. He signed in enormous letters so “that his Majesty could now read his name without glasses and could now double the reward.”

These men knew what they risked. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. It was principle, not property, that had brought these men to Philadelphia. Ben Franklin wryly noted: “Indeed we must all hang together; otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

All of them became the objects of British manhunts. Some were captured. Some had narrow escapes. All who had property or families near British strongholds suffered.

Francis Lewis, New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estate completely destroyed. His wife was treated with brutality and died from abuse.

William Floyd, another New York delegate, was able to escape with his wife and children across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. They lived as refugees without income for seven years. When they came home, they found a devastated ruin.

Phillips Livingstone had all his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family driven out of their home.

Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.

John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. While his wife lay on her deathbed, Hessian soldiers ruined his farm. Hart slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his thirteen children taken away. He never saw them again.

Dr. John Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The British occupied the town of Princeton, billeted troops in the college, and burned the finest library in the country.

Judge Richard Stockton, another New Jersey delegate, had rushed back to his estate in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The family found refuge with friends, but a Loyalist sympathizer betrayed them. Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and cruelly beaten by the arresting soldiers. Thrown into a common jail, he was nearly starved. The judge was released as an invalid. He returned home to find his estate looted and did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. His family was forced to live off of charity.

Robert Morris of Philadelphia met Washington’s appeals and pleas for money time and again. He sacrificed one hundred and fifty merchant ships, depleting his own fortune.

Dr. Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania was forced to flee to Maryland. As a heroic surgeon with the army, Rush had several narrow escapes.

John Morton lived in a strongly Loyalist area of Pennsylvania. When he came out for independence, most of his neighbors and even some of his relatives ostracized him.

William Ellery, Rhode Island delegate, saw his property and home burned to the ground.

South Carolina delegate, Thomas Lynch, Jr., served as a company commander in the Patriot army. His health was broken from deprivation and exposure. His doctors ordered him to seek a cure in the West Indies. On the voyage, he and his young bride were drowned at sea.

In the siege of Charleston, the British captured Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr., the other three South Carolina signers. They were exchanged at the end of the war. The British completely devastated their plantations.

Thomas Nelson of Virginia was in command of the Virginia militia at Yorktown. When British General Charles Cornwallis moved his headquarters into Nelson’s palatial house, Nelson cried, “Give me the cannon!” and fired on his own magnificent home himself, smashing it to bits. He had raised two million dollars for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He died, impoverished at the age of 50.

Of the fifty-six who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds. Five were captured, imprisoned, and treated with brutality. Several lost their wives; others lost their entire families. Twelve signers saw their homes burned to the ground. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.

Independence Day, July 4, 1776, was not a day off and certainly not a vacation. It was not about fireworks and picnics. It was the beginning of a war for independence marked with musket and cannon fire, death, and destruction. The freedoms we enjoy were hard won.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, composed a magnificent closing line. These Patriots took a great risk when they signed, “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

For the signers of the Declaration that was no idle boast. It was a solemn vow, one that cost them dearly and secured our liberty.

THE ART OF BRICKLAYING

June 26, 2019

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 Ridge 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, cross-shaped, 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 didn’t they use brick instead of packing earth to build the old church? The answer is that there was no red clay in those sandy hills.

Browsing the Internet, I discovered that some people collect brick of various sorts. Where in the world do they keep such a collection?

I also learned more than I wanted to know about the history of brickmaking from a British Web site, http://www.brickdirectory.com.

Brick are one of the oldest known building materials dating back to the ancient city of Jericho. The first brick were made of sun-dried mud. Eventually, fired brick were discovered to be more resistant to weather and, therefore, more permanent. Fired brick also absorbed heat making the structure cooler in the day and warmer at night.

Archaeological discoveries reveal that the ancient Egyptians also used sun-dried mud brick as building materials. Paintings on the tomb walls of Thebes depict slaves making brick. The Biblical book of Exodus records brickmaking by the enslaved Israelites prior to their release from bondage.

The Greeks discovered that kiln-fired brick was less susceptible to erosion than even traditional marble walls. The Romans perfected the craft of kiln-firing red and white clay brick for the construction of public and private buildings throughout the empire.

During the twelfth century brick were introduced to northern Europe from Italy. The brick gothic period, as it is known, saw red clay fired brick used by masons instead of cut stone. The uniform shape of the brick made them easier to fit allowing the work to be more efficient. Brick Gothic style buildings are still in use throughout Europe.

Spartanburg County features several unusual examples of early American brickwork.  The Thomas Price house near Switzer was built in 1795 along the Old Stagecoach Road.  The steep gambrel roof and two inside end chimneys are distinctive.  The brick used in the home were made on the premises and laid in a Flemish Bond style.  The restored home is one of our historic treasures.

In the mid-1770s, an itinerant Dutch brick mason traveled through our county.  His specialty was building chimneys with a Dutch tapestry design using handmade brick of differing shades.  The light and dark colored brick created a complex pattern of diamonds in a chain. The design runs the entire height of the chimney.  Smith’s Tavern, also a restored home originally built in 1795, showcases one of the few remaining examples of the Dutchman’s craft.  The private home is located near the intersection of Ott Shoals Road and Blackstock Road south of Stone Station.

Foster’s Tavern, located along the Old Georgia Road was constructed in 1807.  The imposing home was built of hand thrown brick made from a nearby clay pit.  This public house was an elegant inn noted for its fine hospitality during the antebellum period.  John C. Calhoun was a regular guest at Foster’s Tavern as were a number of other notable travelers.  More recently known as the Ruff House, the landmark stands at the corner of South Carolina Highway 56 and Highway 295 near Cedar Springs.

By the way, the aforementioned clay pit was the place where my grandfather built his home in 1937.  It is the home in which our family still lives.

At a cookout several years ago, I admired an outdoor grill made entirely of brick.  The owner explained that he had built the grill out of brick that were left over from the construction of a retaining wall along his driveway.  He hired professional bricklayers to build the wall.  He watched the masons mix mortar and wield trowels as they crafted the long curved wall.  Feeling somewhat confident that he had learned the art of bricklaying by merely watching the skilled laborers, he decided to try building the brick grill on his own.

After two or three frustrating attempts, he questioned his ability to complete the job.  “I finally asked one of the men who built the wall to help me with the grill,” he confessed. “It was not as easy as it looked.”

Over the years I have seen masons working at their craft. The art of bricklaying requires skills that must be learned. A seasoned mason uses a trowel in the same way as an artist use brushes. Furthermore, the precision of the work requires masonry twine, levels, and plumb lines.

I have tried my hand at bricklaying on a few simple projects. I can attest that it is not as easy as it looks.

Masonry work requires, not only a skilled hand and a sharp eye but also a keen mind.  Years ago, a college math professor came to the lumberyard to buy brick.

“I need five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety seven brick,” he announced.

My grandfather said, “We usually sell brick by the thousand, but I’ll sell you that exact amount for the same price as six thousand.”

The professor blinked for a moment before my grandfather added, “That’s a lot of brick.  What are you building?”

The professor explained that he was closing in his carport to make a family room and planned to construct a fireplace with a chimney on one end of the new addition.

My grandfather commented that it must be a mighty big chimney.  Then he asked, “Tell me how you figured your brick.”

The professor explained that he had measured several brick, and he had measured mortar joints.  Multiplying the dimensions of the fireplace and chimney, he had calculated exactly how many brick he needed.

He insisted again, “I need exactly five thousand, eight hundred, and ninety seven brick.”

My grandfather took a puff on his cigar and said, “Fellow, you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” he said. “We moved here from the Midwest last year.”

With another puff of his stogie, my grandfather said, “I don’t know how folks build chimneys where you come from, Professor, but in this part of the world, we usually leave a hole up through the middle of the chimney so the smoke can get out.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed the professor. “I calculated a solid chimney!”

Laying brick is just not as easy as it seems.

UNTIL WE ARE PARTED BY DEATH

June 18, 2019

Having retired five years ago, I do not perform nearly as many weddings as I did when I was a senior pastor. Still, I do conduct a few wedding ceremonies. This Spring, I have had the privilege of officiating at two weddings, both for young couples just beginning life together. I was reminded of how young Clare and I were when we got married. We were both twenty-one years old.

Today Clare and I celebrate our fifty-third wedding anniversary.  Eight years ago, my wife specifically requested that on our special day we begin cleaning the basement.  She wanted us to work on a project that had been on our to-do list for a long time. It might not seem like a very romantic way to spend our forty-fifth anniversary.  Moving boxes, discarding trash, and loading the car with used items to be delivered to the Salvation Army and the Children’s Shelter were all a part of the day. It was the only gift my wife requested, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her.

We worked together for several hours. Then, I picked up take-out food, and we ate supper together on our back porch, surrounded by boxes and bags of trash. We talked together about our marriage. We are married, and we are also best friends. Whether working together on a grungy project or dining out at a nice restaurant, as we did the following evening, Clare and I enjoy being together.

This year Clare’s request for our anniversary was far less demanding. “I just want us to have a meal someplace where we can be together and have eye contact with no distractions.” Both of us are mindful that we have no idea how many more anniversaries we will have together. Each one is to be savored.

Most of us are aware that marriage can be fragile. Few extended families have escaped the pain of separation or divorce. Clare and I have several good friends and dear family members who have suffered through the dissolution of their marriages.

Both Clare and I had parents who were married to one person until death separated them: mom and dad for fifty-eight years and Clare’s parents for forty-two years. Our parents set a good example for us.

We were married on a hot, humid Saturday in a small Methodist Church in the Midlands of South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s only brother, Ben, were the groomsmen.

The wedding proceeded as rehearsed the previous night. Holding Clare’s hands, looking into her beautiful green eyes, I repeated my vows.  Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind me. Clare’s brother had fainted.

Always a quiet person, Ben had been ill the night before. He had kept it to himself so as not to interfere with the wedding. Unable to eat, standing motionless next to a bank of candles in a hot Methodist Church, Ben passed out. When he fell forward his mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out his two front teeth. Blood was everywhere.

My brothers scooped up Ben’s limp body and hauled him, arms and legs dangling, out the side door. Clare’s father jumped to his feet to attend to his son. The pastor simply waited to continue. Finally, the father of the bride and the three stunned groomsmen returned. Then, Clare repeated her vows to me.

I have long thought that Clare had an advantage. I repeated my vows with little understanding of what it meant to promise to love Clare for better or worse. By the time we continued, she, at least, had an inkling.

Few couples understand the gravity of the vows they make. It is the commitment made between the bride and the groom that is most important.

Our marriage has gone through numerous changes. For many years our marriage focused on our children. We had to make adjustments as our parents aged, especially when Clare’s mother suffered from dementia. More changes were required as our children became college students and then adults in their own right. Once our nest was empty, it started filling up again, this time with grandchildren. Clare and I enjoy our family, but we also take delight in those times we have for just the two of us.

An old man and an old woman, married to each other for sixty-one years, were driving along a country road in a pickup truck.  They got behind a late-model car.  In that car was a young couple.  The boy was driving, and the girl was sitting in the middle of the front seat.  The boy had his arm around his girlfriend.  The older couple in the truck followed the young couple for several miles.

After a while, the old woman said, “Pa, I remember when we used to be like that.”

After a pause, Pa replied, “I ain’t moved.”

We realize that our need for intimacy has not diminished, but it has changed. We have so much in common – a long history together, five children, wonderful in-laws, and thirteen beautiful grandchildren.  Marriages that endure are characterized by the bond that comes through shared experiences of joy and sorrow. The adventure of embarking together on a journey into the future is exciting, even if it means cleaning out the basement on a wedding anniversary.

Perhaps the wisdom in Robert Browning’s familiar poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” puts it best.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life,

For which the first was made.

Our times are in His hands.

My dad and my stepmother were celebrating their third wedding anniversary at a restaurant in Tryon, North Carolina.  The waitress noticed that they were holding hands. She asked what occasion they were celebrating.

Dad replied, “We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary.”

The waitress said, “How wonderful.  How long have you been married?”

Dad responded, with a twinkle in his eye, “One hundred and twelve years.”

The waitress was startled.

Dad explained, “I was married to my first wife for 58 years.  Ruth was married to her first husband for 51 years.  And we’ve been married to each other for three years.  That’s a hundred and twelve.”

In a marriage that is an enduring source of joy and love, until we are parted by death is reason to celebrate.