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ONE ACRE OF RED CLAY

April 17, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition, 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

What is the world’s oldest profession? Not so fast. What you have always heard from sociologists may not be the correct answer. According to the Biblical account, the oldest profession existed before the concept of sin. Genesis 2:15 reads, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” May I suggest that the oldest profession is gardening, the care of the earth?

When Clare and I examine our heritage, we discover a long line of farmers and gardeners in each of our family trees.

At birth, he was named Stonewall Jackson Long. Before he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, he changed his name to Jackson S. Long because he said he would rather be known as Jackson S. than as Stonewall J. He was Clare’s father, my father-in-law. I called him Mr. Jack.

Mr. Jack was the fifth of nine children raised on a dirt farm in Saluda County, South Carolina. He dropped out of high school just a few weeks before graduation to help his father do the spring planting. He became an executive with Southern Cotton Oil Company and retired as President of the company. He drank Kentucky bourbon and smoked unfiltered cigarettes, that he lit with kitchen matches. He thought that either filters or lighters caused cancer. He was sure that tobacco did not cause cancer because it grew in the good earth.

In retirement, Mr. Jack returned to his roots. He purchased a Troy-Bilt tiller and grew a half-acre garden. His plot was pristine. Beautiful vegetables were planted in uniform rows. Mr. Jack’s garden was almost pest and weed-free. Best of all, he loved sharing the abundance of his tender loving care with family, friends, and neighbors.

 My dad, too, grew a big garden. It was about the same size as Mr. Jack’s, tilled with a small Ford tractor. Dad’s plot was a family project. All eight of his children worked in the red soil. The garden was bountiful. The harvest was plentiful with enough to share, to can, and to freeze.

Mr. Jack and Dad came by their gardening skills honestly. They learned by necessity and the examples of their fathers and grandfathers.

In 1923, my grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, moved their family from Greenville to Spartanburg in the Upstate of South Carolina. Pappy had been working for his brother-in-law, Asbury Lawton, managing Lawton Lumber Company in Greenville. Pappy decided he wanted to own and operate his own business. So, to avoid going into competition with his brother-in-law, he and the family moved to Spartanburg, where he founded Neely Lumber Company.

Pappy called the business a one-horse lumberyard. He had one employee, Charlie Norman. The lone draft horse’s name was Old Dan.

Pappy was able to earn a good living to support his growing family. He built a fine home on the Greenville highway just on the outskirts of Spartanburg, where the pavement ended.

In February 1928, their eighth child was born. The business and the family were thriving.

In October 1929, the dark cloud of the Great Depression descended. Homebuilding was at a stand-still. Home repairs diminished. People had no extra money to spend. The lumber business dried up. Pappy mortgaged the lumberyard in an attempt to keep it afloat. Prosperity was just around the corner, or so the politicians declared. Pappy mortgaged the beautiful house and sank the money into the company. Despite all of his effort, he lost his business and his home.

The family moved to a rental home in Cedar Springs. Pappy bought a chain gang mule at auction and farmed acreage adjacent to the rented house. He tilled and planted a large vegetable garden to feed his family. They had one cow and one goat to provide dairy products. They raised turkeys and sweet potatoes to provide a meager income.  In 1932 the youngest, ninth, and last child was born. Through grit, determination, and faith, the family survived.

In 1937, Pappy bought a parcel of land with a railroad siding along the Southern Railway line between Spartanburg and Columbia. He had no collateral. The bank loaned him the money on his word. He built a lumber shed near one end of the property and reopened Neely Lumber Company. At the other end of the property, he cut off a one-acre wedge-shaped lot where he built his home.

Some folks cautioned Pappy against building on the land. It was an old pit that had been the source of clay for the hand-thrown brick used to construct Foster’s Tavern in 1806. Some thought the composition of the soil rendered the land unstable, unsuitable for building.

“If you build there, you’re asking for trouble. Every time a train goes past, the house will shake so badly that the windows will break out.”

Pappy took the comments seriously. When the footings for the home were dug, he brought in a fellow who had the equipment to drill holes for electric power poles. The deep holes were spaced several feet apart along the footing trench. When the concrete was poured, and the footings filled up, those holes created pilings supporting the house in the unstable clay. It worked!

Mammy and Pappy lived in the big house, as the family called it, until 1961. Pappy had suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. Mammy had chronic asthma. They moved to a new home in Duncan Park built by their third son, my Uncle Asbury. Uncle Asbury received the deed to the one-acre parcel of land and for the big house.

For the next twenty years, the house was occasionally rented. It served as a place of worship for three start-up churches. It was finally converted to office space.

Clare and I moved to Spartanburg in 1980 with our four sons. The old home was vacant.

After a futile search to find a home we could afford, Clare saw the big old house, as if for the first time.

“Why can’t we live there?” she asked.

I asked Uncle Asbury if we could rent the house. He was delighted to have occupants. We moved in, eventually purchasing the home and making improvements along the way. The old home place, the big house, has been our home for the last forty-one years. This slice of land, shaped like a piece of Mammy’s sweet potato pie, has become our garden.

Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues. Earth Day 2021 will occur on Thursday, April 22—the holiday’s 51st anniversary. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day began as a “national teach-in on the environment.” Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller Silent Spring raised the specter of the dangerous effects of pesticides on the American countryside. Until that time, protecting the planet’s natural resources was not part of the national political plan. Through efforts by government and industry, our citizens have grown increasingly aware of the need for action. Our planet Earth needs healing.

Through individual environmental practices like soil and water conservation, recycling, composting, and planning, we have made significant strides. We still have a long way to go. 

Our one acre of red clay has gradually become holy ground, an unlikely sanctuary wedged between a railroad track and a four-lane highway. We are surrounded on every side by commercial property. Until recently, a pawn shop was across the street.  A landscape company and wood yard were located next door on Uncle Asbury’s old real estate property. Now, Carolina Garden World is our delightful neighbor. Littlejohn Trucks specializing in eighteen-wheel tankers, sprawls down the street. My nephew, Kam, has started a business at the old lumberyard. Our neighbors on the other side are living in a mobile home. Once out in the country on a tar and gravel road, the old home place has been surrounded by commerce. Yet, this is our sanctuary, and we love every square inch of it.

When we first moved into the big house, a well-meaning church member asked, “That is just temporary, isn’t it?”

Of course, it is just temporary. We have only lived here for forty-one years. At some point, we will be gone.

My son-in-law and I were sitting together on our back porch recently. Jay is a well-educated farm boy from Illinois. His Dutch family roots grow deep in the black earth of the Great Plains. From our vantage point on the porch, Jay looked out at the garden.

“You know,” he started. “When you’re gone, it won’t take long for all of this to go to briars and bramble.”

I agreed. “It won’t take long.” I paused before adding, “Somebody else may want to take it over or not. For now, it is mine to tend. I’ll do that as long as I continue to enjoy doing so and as long as my physical health will allow me to do so. After that, I’ll give it back to the Lord.”

Then I said, “Jay, you should have seen it when the Lord had it all by himself.”

I am grateful that Jay and his family have moved in with us. He has taken great interest in this old home place. Already, Jay and Betsy and their daughters have made this one acre their own. Jay and Betsy both come from long lines of farmers and gardeners who love and cherish the good earth.

When Moses saw a bush that was burning but not consumed, his curiosity got the better of him. He moved closer to the unusual sight, and a voice spoke to him from the flaming shrub.

“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

There in the sand, Moses stood barefooted and stammering before an ordinary bush with an extraordinary message. It was a theophany, an encounter with the Almighty. It was a sacred moment, a divine engagement, and a declaration of holiness. If that hot, dry, desolate place can become holy ground, then this one acre of red clay can also become a sacred space. So, too, can your garden be sanctified and be made holy.

As we approach this Earth Day, please consider ways you and your family can join with many others to observe the event. For our family, this is an easy day to remember.

April 22 is also Mr. Jack’s birthday.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE PAINTED LADY

April 14, 2021

On Sunday morning before church, I was having a cup of coffee thinking and praying about the sermon.  I decided it needed a finishing touch, so I penned the following poem to bring closure to the message.  Many of you have told me of your own butterfly experiences.  Several of you have asked for a copy of the poem.  The following is a revised version.

           The Painted Lady

Encased within a brown capsule

Hanging from a tree,

A lowly common caterpillar

Lives so much like me.

Encased within a dry cocoon

Struggling to be free,

Wings emerge with colors bright

To flutter in the breeze.

Faith is like a butterfly

Swirling in the blue

Metamorphosis of the spirit

Making all things new.

Christ Jesus summons each of us,

As Lazarus from the tomb,

“Come forth from your chrysalis.

I offer life to you.”

Hope is like a butterfly

Shimmering in the sun.

Simple prayers with gossamer wings

Ascend to the heavenly One.

With eager expectation

When this life is done

A resurrection promise

From God’s only Son.

Love is like a butterfly

Transformed by God’s great plan

Perching in the human heart

It helps us understand

That through life’s pain and heartache

We trust as best we can.

In goodness, grace, and mercy,

We’re held in loving hands.

Like a butterfly on our shoulder

Touched by tender love,

The Spirit ever with us

As wind or fire or dove

Or maybe as a butterfly –

A gift from God above,

Promise of His faithfulness,

Assurance of His love.

All blossoms bright and beautiful

All flowers short and tall

Handiwork of the Father,

Creator of us all.

The God who made all creatures

Both great and very small

Gives nectar for the butterflies

and provides nurture for us all.

In the muggy heat of summer

Or cooler autumn days

In garden, field or forest

Thanksgiving prayers I raise.

When I see a butterfly,

I am utterly amazed.

I catch my breath in silent awe,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Kirk H. Neely

2006

BASECARDS IN A CEREAL BOX

April 10, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to SPACE – Spartanburg Area Conservancy, 100 East Main Street, Suite 7B, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, 864-948-0000, https://www.spartanburgconservation.org/

As the Major League Baseball season begins, I recall the day I opened a brand-new box of shredded wheat.  As I poured the nutritious squares into a bowl, a small pack of baseball cards fell out of the box.  The Topps Company had made the cards.  Among them was a Chipper Jones card.  Finding the surprise was an early morning experience that would have gladdened the heart of any Atlanta Braves fan!  Chipper Jones was a perennial all-star as a third baseman. 

I can remember the first baseball cards I collected.  They, too, were made by Topps.  Each pack included a flat piece of stale, pink bubble gum.  The adventure inherent in opening a pack of baseball cards was discovering the pictures of the best players.  Those little pieces of cardboard were treasures.  Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider were among the cards I valued most.  I kept them in an old Tampa Nugget cigar box previously owned by my grandfather. Pappy kept cigars in the container before he passed it on to me. It came as no surprise that my baseball cards had the pleasant aroma of his cigars. I kept the box high on the closet shelf. 

Sometimes my friends and I would choose a less desirable baseball card, fold it in half, and attach it to our bicycle wheel with a clothespin.  The sound made by the card’s rubbing against the spokes mimicked the roar of a motor. At least it did in our imagination.

After I left home to go to college, my mother, in a flurry of closet cleaning, got rid of my aromatic cigar box full of baseball cards.  In today’s market, that small collection would have been worth a king’s ransom.  I am amazed at how the value of cardboard can appreciate.

Our son, Kris, was our baseball card collector as a youngster.  Among his favorites was the rookie card of Cal Ripken, Jr.  He even had a Chipper Jones rookie card.  It was autographed by the future Major League star and Hall of Famer when he played a game at Duncan Park in Spartanburg. Then Jones was a first-year player in the minor leagues, playing shortstop for the Macon Braves.  One night when the Spartanburg Phillies were playing the team from Macon, Georgia, Kris took his prized rookie card and an indelible marker to the game.  While the Phillies were at bat, Kris handed the card and marker over the fence behind the visitor’s dugout.  A very young Chipper emerged, signed the card, and handed it back to Kris.

Kris and I have spent many hours together talking about baseball, cataloging cards, and enjoying the national pastime on television.  At the time, Ryne Sandberg was his favorite player.  Sandberg started his career with the Spartanburg Phillies.  He was traded to Chicago and played his major league career for the Cubs at Wrigley Field.  Sandberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  On Kris’ tenth birthday, I gave him a Topps rookie card of the Cubs’ second baseman. 

The following year, I got a surprise for my birthday.  I opened a small package from Kris.  Inside was a Topps baseball card picturing Rocky Colavito, my favorite baseball player when I was a kid.  Rocky was the center fielder for the Cleveland Indians, a power hitter who hit four home runs in one game as a major leaguer.  When Rocky Colavito was in the minor leagues, he played for the Spartanburg Peaches at Duncan Park.  Rocky lived in a spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house on South Converse Street while playing in Spartanburg.

In the 1950s, the Spartanburg Peaches was a minor league franchise of the Cleveland Indians. In those days, Duncan Park was considered one of the best minor league ballparks in the country. Even the seats in Duncan Park were legendary. They had once been used in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. 

Rocco Domenico Colavito, Jr., was born in 1933. Rocky, as he was known, came from the Bronx as the right fielder for the Spartanburg Peaches.  He was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees, and Joe DiMaggio was his boyhood hero.

The death of my grandfather Joe Hudson, a Spartanburg businessman, left his wife, Belle, a single mother with seven children. My mother was their youngest child.

My grandmother’s house at 288 South Converse was a large two-story gray Victorian home with a wraparound porch. Just off the screened back porch was a private room that served as the maid’s quarters in more prosperous times. Granny rented that room to Rocky Colavito in the spring of 1952.

I rarely saw Rocky when he was not in uniform at Duncan Park. I was only seven years old at the time. I remember seeing him walk whenever he left Granny’s house. Later in his career, he would be famous for his powder blue Cadillac and his pretty, blond wife. As far as I know, he did not have an automobile while living in Spartanburg. If he had girlfriends, I could assure you that he did not entertain them in his room at Granny’s house.

By the time he played for the Spartanburg Peaches in 1952, Rocky had developed his own style at the plate. He was a power hitter, and he had a strong arm in the outfield.

Rocky became an immediate fan favorite. Every time he stepped into the batter’s box, the air was electric with anticipation. Every time he uncorked a throw from right field, a murmur of appreciation ran through the crowd.  

In 1952, many suspected that the tall, lanky kid from the Bronx might become one of the better players in Major League Baseball. Few could have predicted that Rocky Colavito would become one of the greatest. Rocky had eleven consecutive 20-home run seasons, exceeding 40 home runs three times and 100 runs batted in six times. He was voted to the All-Star Team nine times.

For Christmas, the year before Rocky came to town, I received a crystal radio kit, which my dad and I assembled. If I propped it in the windowsill of my second-story open bedroom window, I could faintly pick up one station – WSPA 950 AM, the station that broadcast the Peaches’ games. Though I actually attended only a few games in person, I listened to almost every game on my homemade radio.

From my bedroom window, I could see the lights at Duncan Park. When the Peaches made a spectacular play, I would take off the crystal set earphones and listen to the roar of the crowd echoing across Duncan Park Lake. 

At the lumberyard one day, my great-uncle was reading the box scores in the newspaper. Rocky had hit two home runs the previous night. Clicking his false teeth, Uncle Will said, “If you want to see Colavito play, you’d better go soon. He’ll be in Cleveland playing for the big team before long.”

He spoke what I feared. Rocky is such a good player; he won’t play for the Peaches ever again.    

Then, one August afternoon, I went to Granny’s house. I climbed the stairs to the screened porch and noticed that Rocky’s room’s door was closed. When I stepped inside the kitchen, Rocky was seated at the table eating a sandwich and drinking a Pepsi. Granny always had Pepsi-Colas in the refrigerator and ice cream in the freezer.

Granny said, “Both of you boys have August birthdays. Rocky has just turned nineteen; Kirk has just turned eight. So, I bought something special for you.”

From the freezer, Granny took a new container of ice cream, Rocky Road.  When he saw the flavor, Rocky quipped, “This ice cream is named for me! Baby Ruth candy bars are named for Babe Ruth. This ice cream is named for me.”

I was eight-years-old, and I believed!

One day when I went to Granny’s house, Rocky was gone, playing baseball far beyond the reach of my crystal radio set. I was heartbroken!

I now own only one baseball card, a vintage Rocky Colavito Topps card. With its tiny tear near the top and a dark stain in the bottom left corner, the card has been well-loved. I cherish that old card of my favorite baseball player.

I am sure that the dark stain at the bottom of the card is Rocky Road ice cream.

The other day I enjoyed a bowl of Cheerios with some fresh strawberries sliced on top.  I remembered the surprise of finding the cards and thought about how our lives are enriched by small things like cardboard pictures of baseball players.  Though they have some monetary value, their most significant value is in the memories they create.

A parable in the Bible says that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field and goes and buys the field. 

On second thought, maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a grown man who finds a baseball card in his breakfast cereal and, for a moment, feels like a kid again.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com