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LABOR DAY

September 5, 2020

“Dr. Kirk, tomorrow is the day!” the young woman exclaimed. A petite blue-eyed blond, she stood in line with her tall, lanky husband at a local restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice that she was in a family way. The Biblical description is “great with child.” She was very pregnant.

“And what is tomorrow?” I asked.

“Tomorrow is labor day,” answered the young husband.

“Yes! Tomorrow morning at six o’clock, we have to be at Labor and Delivery at the hospital for the arrival of our first child.”

“Get some rest,” I advised. “There is a good reason they call it going into labor.” I spoke out of my experience of being with Clare for the births of each of our five children. I can attest to the fact that the labor of giving birth is hard work.

My dad, father of eight, used to say, “If men and women took turns having babies, no family would have more than three. There’s not a man on earth who would go through that twice.”

Labor Day as a holiday for workers was first proposed in May 1882 by a carpenter, Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. After witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada, McGuire thought such a celebration was needed in this country. Others say that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.

Whether McGuire or Maguire, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 when the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve the legislation. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. By that time, thirty states already celebrated the day. South Carolina was not one of them.

When I was a boy, it was never a holiday at the lumberyard. I remember it as the day the Southern 500 stock car race was run in Darlington, South Carolina.

Now Labor Day is a reminder of how I learned to work.

My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1889.  I called him Pappy. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his mother and three siblings following the death of his father in a railroad accident.   Enlisting in the United States Navy at age 19, Pappy served four years in Cuba.  Upon his discharge, he worked for a telegraph company as a lineman.  His company sent him to the Lowcountry of South Carolina to do the electrical wiring for a sawmill. 

At a Cakewalk at the Methodist church in Estill, he met the woman who would become his wife and my grandmother, Mammy. In 1923, Pappy and Mammy moved to Spartanburg, where he opened his own lumberyard. 

During the Great Depression, they lost everything.  With grit and faith, they raised nine children, sweet potatoes, and turkeys on a rented red clay farm in Cedar Springs.  Every person in the family had to work.

Following the Depression, Pappy opened another lumberyard, a family business that stayed in operation until 2009, forty-seven years after Pappy’s death.

When I was a boy, I wanted to work at the lumberyard.  It was a natural thing.  The men that I admired most worked at the lumberyard:  Dad and Pappy. 

My dad told me I could have a job, but he said, “Before you work at the lumberyard, you have to learn to work for your mama.” 

Working for my mother was harder than working anywhere else.  I spent most Saturday mornings waxing and polishing the white oak floors in our home. Mama always had plenty of chores to parcel out to her children. As the oldest of eight, I was expected to set the example.

I can still hear the reverberating echo of my mother’s warning, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Finally!  I got the promotion! I went to work at the lumberyard the summer after I finished the seventh grade.  I was thirteen years old.  I weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet.

The very first day on the job, my dad put me to the task of unloading a boxcar filled with bags of cement. The old boxcar had just one door.  In those days, nothing was palletized. Forklifts were not yet available.  All the cement had to be taken out by hand, one ninety-six-pound bag at the time, put on hand trucks, rolled up a ramp, and loaded into a warehouse.  My dad knew that I needed a good teacher to show me how to work. That person was Charlie Norman. 

I don’t know how old Charlie was when I started working with him.  I asked him one time.  He said he was as old as dirt.  I didn’t ask again, but I knew Charlie was very old.  He had been working for my grandfather since before the Depression, delivering lumber in a one-horse wagon.

I will never forget that first day on the job.  Those bags of cement were nearly a hundred pounds of dead weight.  Charlie would stack them eight and nine high on the hand trucks, break the hand trucks down, and roll them up the ramp.  I could stack no more than three bags onto the hand trucks. I had to jump up and use all my weight on the handles to break it down.  It was all I could do to roll the hand trucks up the ramp.  Most of the time, I had to turn around backwards and pull the load up the ramp.

By about ten o’clock in the morning, I was drenched with sweat and covered with sticky cement.  Charlie peeled off his shirt.  His ebony skin glistened.  He looked like a bodybuilder.  He was an old man whose muscles were toned by hard work.

We took a half-hour break for the noon meal, not nearly enough time for me. I walked into the office and stood in front of a large exhaust fan for a few minutes.  Pappy saw me dripping wet, trying to cool down. He said, “Kirk if you get enough education, you can work in the shade.” It was a lesson I have never forgotten.

Charlie and I worked together all afternoon until quitting time. Charlie got his second wind.  He started whistling in a low whisper.  By four o’clock, he was singing.  We had worked all day long.  I was bone tired.  Charlie was lifting a low song under his breath, “We’ll work till Jesus comes.”

Dad and I got home a little after six o’clock.  I took a shower.  Mama had fixed a special meal, fried chicken, rice, and gravy.  I fell asleep at the supper table.  Dad guided me to bed and had a prayer with me. At five o’clock the next morning, he woke me up for my second day at the lumberyard. 

I worked all summer long, earning a grand total of two dollars a day. I learned to drive that summer – a three-ton lumber truck.

 I asked my Dad years later why he started me with such a difficult job. 

“I wanted you to learn that this is hard work.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.” 

I asked why he paid me so little. 

He grinned, “Be glad I didn’t pay you what you were worth.” 

As much as I enjoyed working with men I admired, as much as I enjoyed talking with customers, that summer was important because I learned the nobility of work.

And you know what? I didn’t have to work at a lumberyard very long before I heard the Lord calling me to do something else.   

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all fine bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

THE MIRACLE OF SEAGULLS

August 29, 2020

For thirty-eight years, our family vacationed on the South Carolina coast. We have not done so for the last two years because it is difficult for us to travel. Even so, we have many fond memories of those times together. Walking in the surf at low tide gathering seashells, fishing on the rising tide, crabbing in the creeks, or swimming in the waves just beyond the breakers were favorite pastimes. We built sandcastles and flew kites when our children were younger. When they were older, we played Frisbee golf or beach football. Now, it is our joy to know that our grown children are enjoying the beach with their own families.

            Clare and I enjoyed fresh seafood, good books, an afternoon nap, and rocking on the front porch. It always took me a while to unwind, but if I took off my shoes and my watch, I was able to live for a few days by the tides and by the sun. Among my favorite quiet activities was bird-watching.

            The Carolina coast offers a wide variety of shorebirds. Watching osprey feed their young or catching sight of a snowy egret winging over the marsh was a joyful surprise. Even identifying birds as common as seagulls, was interesting. Herring gulls were typical, laughing gulls were entertaining, and spotting an occasional great black-backed gull was a rarity.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I passed the pond at Milliken headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Families with small children were flying kites in the summer breeze. Teenagers were sailing a Frisbee in a nearby field, and others were gathering at the pond to feed the ducks. In the sky above the pond, a small flock of flapping seagulls took turns diving down, looting the scraps of bread intended for the ducks.

            I have often seen seagulls at our large reservoirs – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, and Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd, however, that gulls would congregate above a small pond like the one at Milliken.

            The seagull is the state bird of Utah. Why would a state in the Rocky Mountain West choose a coastal bird as its state fowl?

            In 1848, after Brigham Young had led the first Latter-day Saints into what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, the pioneers experienced a mild winter. The Mormon settlers seemed destined to reap an abundant harvest.

In late May, though, swarms of insects appeared and threatened to decimate the crops. Mormon journal writers described this disaster in Biblical terms: a plague of locusts. These invading hordes of insects, which resembled grasshoppers, were related to the katydid family. They came to be known as Mormon crickets.

            On June 9, 1848, apparently attracted by the Great Salt Lake, legions of seagulls appeared. The birds feasted on the insects, eliminating the encroaching threat.

To this day, the event is known as the miracle of the seagulls. According to Mormon tradition, the gulls are credited for saving the Latter-day Saints’ first harvest in Utah. Church leaders recounted the story from their pulpits. To commemorate the birds’ aid, the Mormons erected the Seagull Monument in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Seagulls can drink both fresh and saltwater without ill effect. A unique pair of glands over their eyes is designed to flush salt from their bodies. For that reason, seagulls enjoy an expansive habitat. They are equally at home on the Carolina coast, the Great Salt Lake, Lake Bowen, or the Milliken pond.

These seabirds are scavengers that will eat just about anything, from fish to small rodents. They enjoy an international cuisine, often taking handouts of food from humans.  They are known to eat French fries, English muffins, and Italian pizza. These clever birds know how to break open clams and other shellfish.

Gulls are typically coastal birds, rarely venturing far out to sea or into deciduous forests. They nest in large, densely-packed colonies of their own kind. They lay two to three speckled eggs in nests composed of vegetation.

Seagulls are resourceful, inquisitive, and highly intelligent birds. They demonstrate complex methods of communication and a highly-developed social structure.  Noisy, mobbing behavior is typical. They attack and harass would-be predators and other intruders, including humans. Gulls have also been known to steal from unattended picnic baskets and to filch from fast food lunches left on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Along the Carolina coast, gulls have learned to coexist and thrive in human habitats successfully.

In October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I ace pilot, was given the assignment to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur at his headquarters in New Guinea.

Somewhere over the South Pacific, the flying fortress, a B-17, became lost beyond the reach of radio. With fuel running low, the crew ditched the plane in the ocean. The colossal bomber stayed afloat just long enough for all who were aboard to escape. The plane went down, leaving eight men in three life rafts adrift at sea.

Captain Eddie and his crew endured the ocean, the weather, and the scorching sun. As the men floated in shark-infested waters, their greatest adversaries were thirst and starvation. After eight days, their rations were depleted.

The crew took turns reading from a small Bible that belonged to one of the men. On the ninth day, they read from the Gospel of Matthew, “Take no thought of what to eat or drink.” The eight then prayed and sang a hymn.

Captain Rickenbacker pulled his hat down over his eyes and dozed. As he slept, something landed on his head. It was a seagull.

Captain Eddie caught the gull. The men ate the bird’s flesh and used its intestines as bait to catch fish. After a short time, a rainstorm brought fresh drinking water.

The crew aboard the raft drifted two weeks longer. On the twenty-first day at sea, search planes sighted and rescued the men. The survivors had been sustained because a lone seagull, hundreds of miles from land, became their miracle.

Later Captain Rickenbacker recounted the story with the publication of a small book entitled, Why I Believe in Prayer.

Jack Parr, an early host of the television broadcast “The Tonight Show,” knew Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Parr’s home on the Atlantic coast was located near Rickenbacker’s residence. Parr said he would often see the Captain along the shore at dusk, feeding the seagulls.

Just before sunset on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, a white-haired man walked along the beach, carrying a bucket of shrimp. In the twilight, the screeching cries of gulls grew louder as they gathered around him.

For half an hour or so, the elderly gentleman would stand surrounded by a raucous horde of ravenous gulls, feeding them shrimp until his pail was empty.

Just as the Mormons of Utah built an improbable monument commemorating a shorebird, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker expressed his gratitude by feeding a flock of birds.

 Both had experienced the miracle of seagulls.

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

THAT HUMMING SOUND

August 22, 2020

This far into summer, I notice that when I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably become aware of a faint humming noise. It might be emanating from my car. The source may be my computer. The sound could come from a home appliance. 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.

We might well ask, “What is that humming sound?”

This time of year it could be the hummingbirds.

We have several hummingbird feeders located just outside the windows of our dining room and our den. We also have one near our screened back porch. These give us front row seats for a fascinating show featuring the tiny winged visitors to our garden.  Our grandchildren are enthralled, and we are delighted that the children enjoy the hummers as much as we do.  

Last week, a few days of mid-August brought blessed relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of our dog day afternoons. On Monday of last week, I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with Clare on our screened porch overlooking the flower garden. Hummingbirds provided the entertainment while we read our local newspaper, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. 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 backporch.  We were treated to an amazing air show.  As we savored 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 captivating 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 in early autumn, they become territorial and will attack any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings squabbling over dessert, the diminutive 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 enchanting entertainment. Hovering, darting, and diving, in their heightened frenzy, they put on quite a performance.  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 sizeable buzzing insect began to bother her.  The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath the tresses of her new hairdo.  The well-mannered 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 at feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts 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 humans 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.

This has been an active season for hummingbirds in our garden. Just this week, a person commented that they had never seen so many hummingbirds in one place. I have had to maintain a steady supply of nectar ready and available to keep up with the demand. Last week our daughter went to the fridge to find something refreshing to drink. She thought she was pouring a glass of cranberry juice over ice. Instead, she mistakenly poured a big tumbler of hummingbird nectar. Imagine her surprise! I’m afraid she might sprout feathers and fly off to South America.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by a cut flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom through an open door in the memory unit of 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.  The staff allowed the bird to feast on the flowers for a few minutes.

When the tiny visitor attempted to exit, it could not find the way out. With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the small 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.

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

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

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