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“Ruby Begonia, I’ve got a job for you.” The command echoed off the AmesHigh School dull-colored hallway walls as I walked toward the tall, slender biology teacher, Mr. Dunn.

As I heard my nickname, my early morning expression of half-closed, sleepy eyes transformed into raised eyebrows and alertness. Since I worked full-time as the science department teacher’s aid with a salary of $4,000 per year without benefits, my coffers could benefit from additional income. But how would I manage a full-time job and two part-time jobs? In addition to my science position, every Friday and Saturday night, I rode my bike to Golds Veritable Quandry, an upscale restaurant on Main Street in downtown Ames, where I worked as a sou chef and received one important perk: dinner, limited to certain items free to employees. “Our Fine Filet – thick tenderloin wrapped in bacon” at $9.45 was off limits. “The Crepe Dianne – with salad and bread” or “The Golden Quiche – cheese, bacon, egg & green pepper pie, served with salad and bread” were elegant selections to this Iowa farm girl. I’d consumed plenty of steaks from our farm-raised steers, but had never heard of quiche or crepes.

Additionally, I frequently worked during the champagne brunch on Sunday mornings. I was certain my schedule had no space for another job. Still I asked curiously, “What do you have on your mind, Mr. Dunn?”

I anxiously waited for his answer. This energetic man with a scruffy reddish beard and face full of freckles topped the scale of happiness. His long fingers touched on the pulse of every creative activity in our small college town. The high school students adored his positive, fun-loving spirit; I did also.

“Well, we need a Market Master for our local Farmer’s Market,” Mr. Dunn began.

I wondered what a Farmer’s Market was and what were the responsibilities of a Market Master. Instead of seeking clarification, I asked, “What day and hours do they need a Market Master?”

“Every Saturday morning through the spring, summer, and fall. It’s located at the old railroad depot on Main Street.”

Ames Train Station

Ames Train Station

On Friday night, after mopping and cleaning the kitchen, I usually returned home around 1:30 am. That was enough time to catch some sleep and ride my bike back downtown. Still, I paused.

Encouragement flew from Mr. Dunn’s mouth. “Oh, Ruby, it’s a great job for you.  You’ll love it.”

Once I had asked Mr. Dunn, “Who is Ruby Begonia?”

He curtly replied, “Oh, some old time radio character.”

The origin of Ruby Begonia was a mystery. Some say Ruby Begonia was first created as a character for the “Amos & Andy Show” which ran first on radio and then television from 1928 to 1966. Kingfish, when caught in a lie, would say, “Do duh name Ruby Begonia ring a bell?”

For me, another mystery was why Mr. Dunn nicknamed me Ruby Begonia. From his endearing tone, I liked being Ruby and wished I were one of Mr. Dunn’s kids living with him and his wife in their large, yellow two-story home near downtown.

I sought more details. “What does a Market Master do on Saturday mornings?”

His green eyes sparkled, and I realized that he was drawing me into accepting the job. “You’ll need to arrive shortly before eight, collect the rent money from the vendors and show them where to display their produce and goods. The old depot has a large overhang which protects the exhibit tables from rainy weather. You’ll stay until all the vendors depart, which is shortly before noon.”

Starting to piece this information together, I concluded that a Farmer’s Market was what served as a garden for city folk. Little did I know that, like Golds Veritable Quandy’s, this part-time job would help a “poor starving” college graduate. I accepted. Mr. Dunn smiled. “Ruby, good decision. I’ll meet you there on Saturday.”

The Friday night before my new job, the restaurant closed and the wait staff departed. In a quiet restaurant, the fun began. The chef walked to the radio, always tuned to the college station, turned the knob to nearly 100 decibels. I grabbed my mop and danced across the kitchen floor to blues and rock and roll. Once the floor shone as bright as a metal grain bin in full sun light, I rushed out the back door and pedaled through the dark, quiet streets to Pammel Court for a short night of rest.

Much too early, the alarm rang at 7:00 am. Retracing my path to downtown, I arrived to greet a small group of middle aged vendors. Mr. Dunn introduced me, using my “real” nickname, Moni. I assigned a space to each vendor, and they began spreading out their fresh vegetables and fruit, baked goods, jams, and jellies.

In junior high school, Pat Nolte, the mother of my best friend Cindy, had taught me how to bake bread. Pat never purchased bread and the smell of bread baking in her oven set off my salivary glands. I loved homemade bread and frequently baked it throughout my high school years. Our family always ate one loaf with melted butter, and sometimes jam, immediately out of the oven. My bread baking came to a halt during college and I survived on cheap grocery store bread, a poor substitute.

I watched as the vendors unloaded their vehicles and carefully arranged their goods. Some folks carried boxes of vegetables – colorful greens, cucumbers, early tomatoes, radishes with the leaves attached. All the same produce that my family grew in the black, loamy soil of our garden. Then, I noticed a short-plump lady spreading out golden brown loaves of homemade bread. The aroma of the Nolte kitchen seeped into my soul. My salivary glands swelled. “Oh, I want some of that bread. But I can’t afford it.” I whined to myself. How would I make it through the morning staring at those loaves? And this lady signed up for a table throughout the whole season. “Oh dear, this job will be torture.”

I scanned down the tables. Glass jars were shining from dappled light that contained strawberry and raspberry jam and elderberry jelly with handwritten labels. Thoughts of raspberry jam on homemade bread caused my swollen salivary glands to secrete whatever they produce. “I must find a higher paying job so I can afford bread and jam,” my thoughts continued.

I silently drooled over the baked goods while a few shoppers chatted with the vendors and purchased items. However, it wasn’t like the Greensboro Farmer’s Market on Yanceyville Street where, today, I seldom shop because the throngs annoy me. The low attendance of the Ames Farmer’s Market during the mid-1970s suited me perfectly, and proved beneficial.

The relaxed nature of the Market allowed the vendors to chat with each other and with me. We covered all subjects – local gossip, politics, college news, athletics. Even though they were old enough to be my parents or, for that matter, grandparents, I enjoyed conversing with them in the shade of the depot overhang. The slow-paced morning moved toward noon and the vendors began boxing up their unsold goods.

They commented on my mode of transportation and asked how far I had to ride home. Evidently, they also sized up the volume of my backpack. The plump lady was the first to ask, “Would you like a loaf of bread?”

My quick response was, “Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? Yes!”

Within seconds, another lady spoke, “How about some jam?”

“I’d love a jar!”

Each vendor offered me a little some thing; I graciously accepted and thanked them profusely. What a red letter day for me; a young lady struggling to begin her career on low paying jobs while paying back college loans. After the vendors headed home to their farms, I wiggled my shoulders through my backpack straps and could hear Mr. Dunn’s voice, “Ruby Begonia, you made out all right.”

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Did Margaret, my mother-in-law, ever favor pastel colors?  My memory holds images of her attired in earth tones except for pajama bottoms.  Pinkish pigs and Carolina blue sheep decorated the cloth with crescent moons and stars scattered throughout the pale yellow background with snooze time, sleepy, let’s go sleep, and Z Z Z written around the animals.   I inherited the pajamas and wear them, even though pastels don’t dominate my wardrobe either.  I’m always hopeful they will offer a restful night of sleep.

Margaret saved pastels for the naked ladies.  In the sultry heat of Southern summers, naked ladies are adorned with a cool, pink color as their fragrant perfume permeates the humid air.  Margaret’s naked ladies stood as sentinels in the partial shade of her pecan trees and near the front door of her home on Holden Road in Greensboro.  Each spring, tightly wrapped leaves emerged from the earth in her brick planter box.  The long leaves unfurled and for a few months captured the sunlight, storing food in the bulb below.  Until one day, the leaves become limp, faded in color, and completely died back.  For several weeks, the plant is dormant and hidden below the earth’s surface.

Gardeners forget about the plant since it’s out-of-sight and out-of-mind until shortly after the fourth of July.  Next, hollow green stems burst through the soil, grow rapidly, and reach for the sky.  A cylindrical flower bud forms on the tip and slowly opens to reveal three petals and three sepals, all the same color, thus called tepals.   The light pink tepals cool the soul on sweltering days.

The leaves and bulbs of naked ladies are similar to an amaryllis whose bulbs are often forced to bloom during the Christmas holiday season.   Naked ladies belong to the Amaryllis Family and are a hybrid between Lycoris straminea and Lycoris incarnata, called Lycoris squamigera.  Other common names are resurrection lily and surprise lily.  However, I prefer naked ladies because I learned that name from Margaret who enjoyed sharing and receiving garden flowers – both horticultural ones and wildflowers.  Zoonomia, Margaret’s mother, who lived on Mendenhall Street near Buffalo Creek in Greensboro, also grew roses and other flowers.  Certainly, Zoonomia and her daughter delighted in sharing old-time southern favorites called “pass-along-plants.”

Naked Ladies and Native Grasses in Moni’s Yard

How did Zoonomia instill the joy of growing flowers to her daughter?  And why did Margaret’s grandmother name her daughter Zoonomia?  In 1789, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, wrote a poem called “The Love of Plants” and the last couple lines introduced the concept of evolution.  Later he published a book titled, “Zoonomia: The Laws of Organic Life.” Was this the derivation? I don’t know but Zoonomia Davant loved plants and I imagine her as a woman full of organic life.

I gifted many plants to my mother-in-law: Soloman’s seal, Lenten roses, May-apples, trout lilies, bloodroot, among others.  The plants passed from my fingers with dirt under the nails to her shaking hands.  With a sparkle in her eyes, she expressed comments like, “These flowers will look nice along the stone walkway by the garage,” but never a thank-you.  With the first plant that Margaret offered me, she taught me an Appalachia superstition:  Never thank a friend when they give you a plant for that will guarantee the plant’s death.

Today, I wonder if Margaret’s naked ladies came from Zoonomia’s garden.  If so, the naked ladies have passed through three or more generations.  When Margaret offered the bulbs to me, I gladly accepted with, “Oh, I’d love to see naked ladies in my yard.”  Of course, they survived and every year John and I, dressed in earth tone shorts and shirts, enjoy the pastel naked ladies scattered about our Burnt Oaks garden with thoughts and memories of a colorful lady.

Margaret and Family Celebrating Her Birthday by Gardening Together

Naked Ladies Flowering in Margaret’s Brick Flower Bed

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My grandmothers knew the importance of a tasty homemade cookie. However, only recently have politicians gained this understanding. Who will win the 2012 Family Circle Presidential Cookie Bake-Off: Michelle Obama or Ann Romney? Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to fire up your ovens, and then vote.

Cookies were introduced to America by immigrants from Holland, England, and Scotland. The term cookie is derived from a Dutch word, koekje. Cookies originated as test cakes when a small amount of cake batter was baked to test the oven temperature. Probably young children eagerly volunteered to consume the test cakes, as I loved to lick the batter from the cake and cookie mixing bowls and beaters. Admittedly, I still lick the batter and, at nearly sixty years of age, I have never contracted salmonella from the raw eggs. That may be due to my childhood farm life and the introduction of bacterial diversity to my system.

As a child, I thought all grandmothers baked cookies. At least, both of mine did. I never actually saw them bake cookies, but it’s a safe assumption that the homemade cookies neatly arranged in their cookie jars were covered with Grandma Nan’s and Grandma Edith’s finger prints, not Grandpa Fred’s or Grandpa Cliff’s. Grandma Nan’s cookie jar was a big pig wearing a baker’s cap and apron. It sat proudly on her kitchen counter. Another one was a lovely etched, green, depression-glass biscuit jar. I loved both cookie jars, and not just for the contents. Those cookies were made of sugar and tasty, but, more importantly, made by the hands of those I loved.

Pig cookie jar similar to Grandma Nan’s

Grandma Edith’s specialty was peanut butter cookies. When she married my grandfather in 1925, peanut cookies had only recently been introduced. Around that period, George Washington Carver, an African-American educator, botanist, and scientist, promoted peanut production to replace cotton, which had been destroyed by the boll weevil, as the cash crop of the South. Mr. Carver included three recipes for peanut cookies in his 1916 publication, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” The peanuts were crushed or chopped prior to adding to the cookie batter.In 1922, peanut butter was invented by Joseph Rosefield and marketed by Swift & Company as E.K. Pond peanut butter. The name changed to Peter Pan when the children’s novels of the same name were published. During the next decade, peanut butter made its way into cookies as an ingredient in Peanut Butter Balls in a Pillsbury cookbook. This recipe instructed the baker to roll the dough into balls, and then press them down with the tines of a fork.

As a little girl, I noticed parallel lines on the surface of my grandma’s cookies. For a few seconds prior to consumption, I wondered how she made those ridges stretching across the cookie. However, my curiosity quickly faded as the peanut butter cookie continued its path into my salivating mouth. Only years later, when I received her recipe, did I learn the origin of the lines.

Grandma Edith’s Peanut Butter Cookies

Cream together:
½ c. butter
½ c. white sugar
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. peanut butter
Add:     1 beaten egg and ½ t. vanilla
Mix together:    1 ½ c. flour, 1 t. baking soda, and ½ t. salt
Add flour mixture to rest of ingredients and chill. May add chopped peanuts to batter.
Drop on an oiled cookie sheet and press down with a fork that has been dipped in flour.
Bake until set but not hard, approximately 12-14 minutes at 375 degrees.

Returning from a botanical field trip to the North Carolina coastal plain, my colleagues and I stopped in an Amish store in PenderCounty. As I crossed the threshold of the old country store, a sweet smell brought back memories of my past. “What is that smell?” I asked Marj. Soon, we spotted bags of cookies on the check-out counter, and, of course, I purchased a couple bags. Sharing the cookies on the drive home, we all agreed that they topped off an excellent day in the field. But why did those cookies elicit such a strong memory?

That evening, I called my mother. “Mom, today I bought some cookies at an Amish country store. They were like a sugar cookie with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on the top.” The sweetest tone in her reply was filled with love, “Ah, Snickerdoodles, Grandma Nan baked them all the time.” How appropriate that my German Grandmother Fillman (Villman) baked Snickerdoodles, which are thought to be derived from a German cinnamon-dusted pastry called Schneckennudeln.

Grandma Nan’s Betty Crocker Snickerdoodles

Cream together:
1 c. soft shortening
1 ½ c. sugar
2 eggs
Sift together, and then stir into above:
2 ¾ c. flour
2 t. cream of tarter
1 t. soda
½ t. salt
Roll into balls the size of a walnut. Roll balls in mixture of 2 T. sugar & 2 t. cinnamon.
Place about 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake 8-10 minutes in hot oven (400 degrees) until lightly browned but still soft. The cookies puff up at first, and then flatten out with crinkled tops.
Makes 5 dozen 2 inch cookies.

There were no chocolate chip cookies in my grandmother’s cookie jars; they were one of my favorite treats. It was also the favorite cookie for the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, who gruffly demanded, “Me want cookie!” Cookie Monster would have adored living with Hillary Clinton who baked his favorite cookies, and he probably would have voted for Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.

During Bill’s campaign, Hillary Clinton replied to a reporter in Chicago’s Busy Bee Coffee Shop, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Ms. Clinton received much grief over her cookie quote, but minor compared to what she faced as first lady.

During the Clinton/Bush campaign, the cookie quote inspired the first Family Circle Presidential Bake-Off. In 1992, Hillary’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies beat Barbara Bush’s classic chocolate chip cookies, 55% to 45%, and Bill Clinton won the election. Since that first bake-off, the Family Circle winner has successfully predicted the presidential winner in all elections except one when Cindy McCain’s oatmeal-butterscotch cookies beat Michelle Obama’s shortbread cookies.

Hillary Clinton’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 c. shortening
1 c. packed brown sugar
½ c. white sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 c. rolled oats
2 c. semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush baking sheets lightly with vegetable oil.
Combine flour, salt, and baking soda on waxed paper.
Beat together shortening, sugars, and vanilla in large bowl with electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in rolled oats and then chocolate chips.
Drop batter by rounded teaspoon onto baking sheets. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes or till golden. Cool cookies on sheets for 2 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool completely.
Yield 7 dozen

This year, 2012, Michelle submitted another Obama family favorite, white and dark chocolate chip cookies and Ann Romney submitted oatmeal M & M’s cookies. Search the web for recipes and vote, but don’t forget to vote in the real election on November 6!

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October 18, 2011 started as an uneventful day when Debbie, a friend from New Mexico, and I left my house, drove past the “South Lawn,” and down the gravel driveway to Witty Road, headed to yoga at Sportime. Pele, my Portuguese water dog, sat in the back seat admiring Debbie’s pretty wavy black hair streaked with gray hair just like his. The fall palette framed the Carolina blue sky as we drove past Lake Brandt, one of Pele’s favorite trails where he hoped to stop for a long hike.

However, the “adventure box” passed all Pele’s trails and continued until we arrived at the gym. I slowly steered my compact car into a shady parking space next to an enormous shiny, black SUV.

Pele recognized the parking lot and knew this entailed a long wait. Normally a quiet dog, Pele used his muscular chest and voluminous lungs to bark loudly and express his dissatisfaction. After all, Pele was probably thinking that he does an authentic downward facing dog and could lead the yoga class.

I stepped out of the car while verbally attempting to reassure and calm Pele. With a quick upward glance, I noticed that the SUV was backed into the parking space with all the windows open and four young men watching my every move. “My dog will settle down once I leave,” I told them.

Next I opened the trunk, grabbed my light blue yoga mat, tucked it under my arm, and strolled towards Debbie, who had already looked inside the SUV. After rounding the back of my car, I too, noticed that all the physically fit guys were dressed in black and heavily armed with automatic guns. These fellows were not deer hunters.

Recalling news of President Obama’s scheduled visit to Greensboro to promote his job bill, I leaned slightly to peer into the SUV and asked, “Is Obama in the gym?”

In contrast to Pele, the men remained completely silent. Only Debbie responded. “They can’t say.”

“Well, you certainly are not sitting here because my husband is in the gym,” I joked. Laughter broke the silence, and then Debbie and I continued to the gym entrance. Pele sat in the back seat annoyed.

I watched Moni and Debbie walk away and a curious thing happened. They stood in a short line and quickly reached a civilian dressed man who waved a wand around their torsos, legs, and out-stretched arms; I assumed it was a yoga position. It was difficult to keep a close eye on them because a huge vehicle obscured my view.

I shifted in an attempt to maintain eye contact on Moni because I always keep her in my view until she disappears, and then I focus on that point until she FINALLY reappears. Instead, I glanced inside the SUV. Holy catfish, those dudes had big guns.

Like a cat, risking that my curiosity might kill me, I asked “Hey dudes, who are you? And what is the deal with those guns? Look guys, I promise I won’t bark any more.”

The secret service agents glanced at each other until one finally one submitted, “I guess we can tell a dog, especially one that looks like Bo.”

“We’re from Washington, D.C. and President Obama is working out in the gym.”

“You don’t say. I lived in Alexandria, Virginia the first four and a half years of my life. I’ve seen photos of Malia and Sasha’s dog, Bo.”

“That’s real close to Washington, D.C.”

“Now I live with Moni and John in the woods about ten miles from here.”

“That sounds like a good life for a dog.”

“It’s fun.  I chase deer and squirrel in my yard. I even killed a ground hog recently. Some times I chase the family cat, Socks, but I get scolded for that. What’s the White House South Lawn like?”

“Oh, it is lovely; there is a thick lawn, rose bushes, and a vegetable garden.”

“You should see my South Lawn. It is south of our house with large oak trees, but no grass.”

Debbie and I cleared the wand test and entered Sportime. As Debbie checked in as a visitor, I scanned the treadmills for President Obama. No sign, I figured he was sequestered in a private room. We proceeded upstairs where from the mezzanine Debbie squatted to look through the handrail and, in the weight room, she spotted a tall, slender black man standing alone. “Is that Obama?” she asked.

A millisecond later she answered herself, “Yes, it is!”

Excitedly I exclaimed, “Oh, Debbie, I should tell him how I got the rescue Portuguese water dog that he wanted!”

For a few seconds I hesitated, thinking how this important man probably just wants to be left alone and lift weights. But then I told myself that I had the best story of anybody in this gym to share with President Obama and nothing to do with current events. After all, for years, I joked that I got the rescue Porty that Obama sought and Pele almost ended up in the White House. The man himself should hear the story.

With that thought and enough confidence to fill the world, I bee lined downstairs and straight to the weight room. En route, I told myself to avoid looking around for secret service agents because they would likely prevent me from approaching the President. My timing was exquisite. I entered the weight room with my eyes focused on the back of Obama’s head; he turned to look for his next weight machine and made eye contact. From that second until the end of our encounter, our eyes were locked together.

As I walked toward President Obama, with a smile as broad as the crescent moon across my face, he reached for my hand. During those steps, I was thinking what fun I was about to have and, amazingly, not a bit nervousness. I felt as if I were walking up to an old high school friend. Dressed in long, baggy, brown work-out pants, a cotton T-shirt, and baseball cap bill cropping his sparkling eyes out-lined with long eyelashes, President Obama also had the appearance of an old friend.

“I got the rescue Portuguese water dog that you and your family hoped to acquire,” I started.

For a short second, as expected, he looked confused. I continued, “Not long before you and your family started looking for a rescue Porty, I got one from Alexandria. My Porty could have ended up in the White House, but instead I got him.”

His eyes and face informed me that he now understood.

“Oh, aren’t they the greatest dogs?” President Obama commented.

“They are wonderful,” I agreed.

“What is your dog’s name?”

“Pele.”

“Well, it sounds like Pele ended up in a nice home.”

“He sure did, we adore him.”

My mind continued with thoughts to share with President Obama such as how I’m a botanist and Pele conducts field work with me. But, reality reared up and I felt it was time to let the President continue lifting weights.  He released my hand, our eyes shifted, and he searched for his next machine.

Only after I departed did the amazement that I had just informed the President of the United States that I beat him to a rescue Porty sink in. Back to my more timid, shy self, I returned to the yoga room and began my practice without telling any body except my good friend Debbie.

In the parking lot, Pele concluded his conversation with the secret service agents, “Please tell Malia and Sasha that my only regret is that I never got to play with them. And tell Michelle that I would have enjoyed sneaking out of The White House with her.”

Image

Bo at work in DC

Pele at work in NC

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“It’s cold out there, colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theater on a Saturday night.” Emotional Weather Report by Tom Waits

Men writing dress codes for high school girls is about as ridiculous as giraffes telling earthworms how to mate. But in the 1960s Iowa farmers and school officials thought they knew the best attire for the CedarValleyHigh School girls.

Prior to the days of climate change, Iowa winters were cold. Just how cold? The last winter I lived in Iowa, the high never got above zero for over a month. Old timers said it got too cold to snow. That winter proved it. No snow, no ice, and air molecules froze your nostrils if you breathed directly without first passing air through a scarf. Other winters in my youth usually included copious amounts of snow for constructing snowmen and forts used for killer snow ball fights.

As kids heading out the door to play, we heard, “Got your long underwear on? Put on your hat. Zip up your coat. Wear your mittens. Put a scarf over your face.” Without New Age wicking materials like Gore-Tex, our attire included flannel-lined blue jeans, cotton mittens, and wool scarves.

In elementary school, we girls wore jeans under our dresses to keep our skinny legs warm while waiting for the school bus. As we aged into junior high school, knee high socks replaced our jeans. This left a few inches of leg exposed between the top of socks and the bottom of the hemline. The harsh Canadian winds blew across the Iowa prairie, hitting that small exposed area and frost-nipping our legs.  At this age, none of the girls thought to question authority.

When we reached high school, a new material changed our lives. Polyester, the miracle fiber made from petroleum, was first introduced to the American public in 1951.  Still, throughout the fifties and early sixties, Minnesota Woolens supplied most of our winter clothing. Eventually, all fads reached rural Iowa, and about my junior year, along came polyester pant suits. But, we were not allowed to wear this new fashion to school, only dresses and skirts were permitted.

A typical school day started with, “Bye, Mom. See you after basketball practice.” I then exited the front door of our large, pink-sided house for a six block walk to the elementary school where the high school students caught the school bus to Somers, the location of our high school. Unfortunately, the introduction of school backpacks lagged behind pant suits, so I nestled a pile of books in the bend of my left elbow while my right hand gripped the handle of my tenor saxophone case. I left home oblivious to the weather report because it made no difference. Every day, I donned a dress or skirt with a hemline no more than three finger’s width above the knee; any higher and you got sent home to change clothes. Pants were absolutely forbidden. None of the girls wore nylons because knee socks provided more warmth. Every day throughout the winter, I selected a dress and socks to match. The school colors of red and black matched my black knee socks with legs brighter than Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick. Damnation, those winter days were cold!

The Cedar Valley School Board consisted of four men and two women. The superintendent of the school system was male, and so were the principals of the three schools. These officials created the rules for the pupils, including the dress code.

Finally, the girls matured enough to revolt. For the umpteenth time, we approached the high school principal wearing his white dress shirt, suit, tie, and black executive socks and pleaded our case. “Our legs freeze with dresses on. Why can’t we wear pant suits on cold days?” One day, in a moment of weakness, the principal fired back, “If 70% of the parents agree to a change in the dress code, then the school will change it.”

Well hot damn, I thought, certainly 70% of our parents are smart enough to vote for common sense. This sounded easy. The next day, I entered the typing room and hammered away on the keys.

                                     Cedar Valley High School Dress Code

The girls of Cedar Valley High School wish to wear pant suits on cold days and we need 70% of the parents to agree to this change in the dress code. Please mark this ballot and return to the school.

            __________Yes, I agree the girls may wear pant suits to school.

            __________No, girls should only be allowed to wear dresses or skirts.

The next step entailed a trip to the office to make copies on the mimeograph machine. Cleo Wyatt, the principal’s secretary and a friend’s mother, sat at her desk working on office papers, “Hi, Moni, how you doing?”

“Just fine, I need to make a few copies, I won’t be long.”

“Alright, have a nice afternoon.”

Without a care in the world, and oblivious to future trouble, I entered classrooms as the bell rang and handed out the questionnaires to students for their parents’ consideration. I ended the day with a clear conscience, confident that soon the days of red legs would be history.

Wrong.

The next day, shortly after I arrived at school, my home room teacher informed me, “Mr. Hairston would like a word with you.”

“Me?” My mind whizzed around searching for an answer as to why.

“Yes, go ahead to his office now during home room.”

Slowly, I picked up my books and walked up the stairway to the principal’s office wondering if I were in trouble and, if so, what for? Or had I won an award?

I entered the secretary’s office and Cleo announced my presence, “Mr. Hairston, Moni is here.”

For my first visit to the principal’s office, my eyes surveyed the books and papers scattered across his desk and a photo of his family, all neatly dressed.

Mr. Hairston greeted me, “Good morning, Moni. Please take a seat.”

I sat in the chair in front of his desk, being certain to cross my legs daintily and not expose any leg to an adult male. “Good morning,” I replied.

Next, he looked me directly in my eyes and asked, “Yesterday a student passed out a dress code survey. Was that your doings?”

Unaware of any problem and raised to always tell the truth, I answered honestly, “Yes.”

“What was your thinking when you did this?”

“Well, you mentioned that if 70% of the parents agreed to a change in the dress code, then we could wear pants to school. And my legs get pretty darn cold when waiting for the school bus.”

Mr. Hairston slowly explained, “You know there is a process that we must follow to implement a change in the dress code.”

Naïve about policy and regulations, I was unfamiliar with what he meant by “process.” I asked, “Isn’t a survey the only way to figure out if the parents support a change?” Since I upheld a “good girl” reputation, he suppressed anger and an expression of dismay crossed his face.

Next, he proceeded to describe the steps required to initiate change which included the approval of the faculty, staff, and School Board. This encounter introduced me to the “real world” of discussions, meetings, committees, building support, enrolling others and all the necessary processes to elicit change in our world, which to this day can still cause frustration for this weathered older lady.

The students and parents heard nothing until the following winter, my senior year, when girls were allowed to wear pant suits provided the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.

Rhonda’s pant suit was acceptable with the new dress code. My white jeans would have sent me packing home for a change of attire.

 

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Yesterday, while driving down the road, Moni mentioned to John, “Chris sure had a Mr. Magoo summer.” Quickly, John agreed while I wondered who is Mr. Magoo and what does he have to do with my favorite little buddy.

John and Moni knew that a German like me may not be familiar with Mr. Magoo, so on their Ipod, they played the theme song to the 1977 movie, “What’s New Mr. Magoo.” My readers may listen to the song and view Mr. Magoo by clicking on (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDIYmwa6vnQ). The chorus of the song includes a line, “What’s New Mr. Magoo? What adventures have you bumped into?” Mr. Magoo answers, “Would you like to know?”

The video clip shows Mr. Magoo who is a nearsighted, short, wealthy cartoon character. He first appeared in a 1949 cartoon named The RagtimeBear. Because Mr. Magoo refuses to wear corrective lenses, he stumbles into messy scenarios which exacerbate when he refuses to admit there is a problem. Mr. Magoo obliviously walks through surrounding danger clean as a whistle. Amazingly, like Mr. Magoo, Chris bumbled into one potentially catastrophic situation after another throughout the summer.

Make this clear, Mr. Magoo can never drive me.

 I’m a bit perturbed with the kid though, because either Moni’s car or Chris’s gray Toyota truck witnessed these adventures while I sat in my boring garage. Then, Moni, John, and I learned about the excitement by receiving text messages and photographs on John’s cell phone. Life is unfair at times.

Since Chris changed majors from mechanical engineering to business, he enrolled in summer school in 2010. On the last day of classes, he sauntered from the NC State campus back to Moni’s car, which he had borrowed. Nearing its parking location, he glanced up and noticed yellow caution tape stretched across the entire street blocking his access to the blue vehicle. To the right, a fire truck blocked the middle of the street. Chris voiced, “What the crap? How do I get my car out of there?”

Eventually a fire fighter informed Chris, “There’s a broken pipeline spewing natural gas into the air. Nobody is allowed in this area.” This was not the place to start an internal combustion engine and chance a spark.

Text Message Read: "Gas pipeline broke. Mom's car stranded."

The stranded vehicle remained while Scott, a friend, drove Chris to work at Transporter Werks in downtown Raleigh where Sean Fraser, the owner, and his employees restore VW buses, beetles, Karman Gias, and Porsches. I hear that Transporter Werks vehicles are knockout beautiful (http://www.transporterwerks.com/). Even though I want to visit these fine people who love Volkswagens, I’m thankful Chris was not driving me that day. Oh, the thought of getting blown to the moon in an explosion just scares the head lights out of me. After work and hours later, Chris returned to the scene and, like Mr. Magoo, found a parking ticket neatly tucked under his windshield wiper.

About the second adventure, a news reporter commented, “It’s a big story that many people likely slept through.” Not true for Chris and his friends. That evening started with the three Bates members setting up chairs for a Richard Shindell concert (http://www.richardshindell.com/index.php?page=home) hosted by Triad Acoustic Stage (http://www.triadacousticstage.com/). Parked outside a restaurant window, I watched my family dine with Richard, his guitarist, and others prior to the performance at Mack and Mack (http://www.mamclothing.com/). Cameron, a high school friend, joined Chris for the entertaining show filled with sweet music, which I could hear drifting outside to Elm Street. Afterwards, Chris and Cameron joined other friends in downtown Greensboro, while Moni and John drove me home to my garage. The next morning, we received the text message and photograph below.

Text Message Read: "Big tank fire."

Today’s technology at times baffles Moni and John. The small cell phone screen did little justice for the photograph. It was tiny. John put on his eye glasses. Moni, like Mr. Magoo, took hers off. They both squinted and still could not make out the image. John questioned, “Maybe this is the accident we saw on the way home?”

Moni answered, “It can’t be, check out the time it was sent, around three A.M.”

The aging parents decided to show me the photograph. Yea, like a 1970 VW Bus handles technology, have they not looked at my dashboard? Come on. Still, I gave it a shot and asked John to turn on my lights. With my head lights focused on the teeny, weensy screen, the image stayed, well, small, and then my head lights crossed.

We waited for the news to inform us that shortly before one A.M. and next to Interstate 40, lightening struck one of the million gallon capacity gasoline tanks owned by Colonial Pipeline. It immediately burst into flames that twisted to the heavens and outward to other tanks. From a highway bridge, Chris and his friends watched in awe as this once in a lifetime event blazed on, ending with contorted, melted metal tanks.

Again, like Mr. Magoo, Chris fumbled into a conflagration that surprisingly did not explode and blow a section of Greensboro off the map. Dang, why didn’t Chris drive me that night? Man, again, I missed all the exciting action.

July greeted Chris in the same vein. Back in Raleigh, while strolling down a side street near NC State, he smelled and saw smoke. Chris exclaimed, “What now?” This time, on a much smaller scale, smoke billowed from the back of a City of Raleigh garbage truck. Moni learned of this adventure from a photograph and text posted on Facebook. Courtney, a special friend, commented, “What the dump?” I wonder if a parking ticket got deposited into that flaming truck. 

Facebook Message: "Garbage truck on fire."

Humor and horror ran thick in our southern blood during the month of August, the third consecutive month of stupidly hot weather. This last adventure made me thankful that I live in Summerfield because zombies are out and about in Raleigh! Driving the streets of the state capital, Chris spotted the North Carolina (NC) Center for Disease Control (CDC) US Dept. of Zombie Removal van complete with the eradicator on the roof!

Facebook Message: "Zombie removal van."

Oh now, this is spooky! What if the zombie removers mistake Chris for one when he is a bloody mess after crashing on his dirt jumping bike? Moni and John tell me not to worry. They have faith that, like Mr. Magoo, Chris will waltz through any incident with grace and a grin. But I so wish that my little buddy would graduate from college in December and come live with me again. I miss him. But first, he may wish to consider a second degree in journalism. That fellow bumps into all the action. Then again, I bet The Onion – America’s Finest News Source (http://www.theonion.com/) will offer Chris a job as a stringer after reading this chapter, degree or no degree. Yes, an office in the upstairs of my garage is a perfect plan. Hum, do you think John and Moni will like this idea?

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Pelé, the Portuguese Water Dog

On May 24, 1985, the North Carolina legislature passed an antique plate law. House Bill 704 Chapter 257 was passed as General Statue 20-63 (d). The statue reads, “Any motor vehicle of the age of 35 years or more from the date of manufacture may bear the license plates of the year of manufacture instead of the current registration plates, if the current registration plates are maintained within the vehicle and produced upon the request of any person.”

I tolerated a long morning of boring sleep while Moni wrote scientific reports at her computer, but the afternoon concluded differently. The staccato sound of the keyboard subsided and Moni called, “Come, Pelé!”

Up I jumped. Oh crap, I hit my head on top of my crate, again. Moni’s stocking clad feet shuffled across the brick kitchen floor. The sweet sound of a lid lifting from a potato-shaped bowl filled with doggie treats, the ones with the picture of an adorable Portuguese Water Dog like me on the bag, reverberated through the house. Those single bite tidbits are delicious. I behave like the teacher’s pet when Moni’s pockets bulge with them.

While standing near the office door, Moni gently commanded, “Sit, Pelé.”

Yes, m’lady. I sat my bottom down and waited patiently.

The door opened and I bounded outside like a Yukon Gold shot from a PVC pipe gun. The crisp air filtered through my unclipped gray-tinged, black fur. In an attempt to control my excitement, Moni raised her voice, “Heel, Pelé.”

You bet; watch this. In mid stride, I queued up to Moni’s left leg and, with extreme difficulty, slowly walked to the garage where Fredrick the VW bus resides. I’ll never get there at this speed.

Finally, the sound of Fredrick’s sliding door opening and Moni’s voice, “Load up, Pelé.”

Yahoo, let’s take a hike. I leapt into Fredrick and assumed my position in the passenger seat, just in front of an oval sticker taped to the glove box. The message is Fredrick’s reminder for me to “Wag More, Bark Less.”

Moni placed Fredrick in reverse, twisted her torso like an owl rotating its head, visually lined up the North Carolina State Wolf Pack sticker in the center of the rear window with the trunk of a large tulip tree in the natural area, then stepped on the accelerator. Shifting into first gear, we headed to Lake Brandt Road. Fredrick crossed the bridge on Mears Fork Creek, passed the beaver pond, and sputtered up the rolling terrain to Hillsdale.

From the angle of the sun, I estimated that we arrived at the Lake Brandt marina trail head at three o’clock. Come on, Moni. We only have two hours before the gate closes. I NEED ALL that time to check messages from other dogs, swim, chase deer, eat bones, and leave messages on shrubs and trees.  

During the fall, deer carcasses litter the forested slopes of Lake Brandt. We began our hike on the Nat Greene trail, but soon bushwhacked to the parallel Wild Turkey trail where I immediately sniffed my way to fresh bones. Remnants of fur and tendons clung to the knee joints. Oh boy, it will take some time to savor this one. I hunkered down, gnawed, chewed, and ate marrow. The sense of time completely left my mind.

After I consumed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner, we hiked to a “skinny.” A skinny is a bridge frequently constructed of lumber or a fallen tree that bikers ride to cross a ditch or stream. This one was about eight inches wide and five feet long. On biking days, I run through the ditch while Moni rides across the skinny. Moni gets nervous when she rides in the opposite direction, so I lead her through the ditch. While Moni studied the skinny, I vanished to my bone stash. Got to go, see you in a few minutes.

The sun descended low on the horizon and dappled light filtered through the leafless trees. We began hiking back to Fredrick. At a long wooden bridge that crosses the floodplain of a slow moving tributary, Moni glanced at her watch. “Pelé, its four-thirty, we better hustle.” My four short legs clipped along like a cantering horse.

I emerged from the woods and happily trotted into the gravel parking lot. Oh no, Moni, why is there a black and white car with blue lights on top parked behind Fredrick? I saw no other vehicles.

Moni stepped from the woods; Danny, a runner, yelled, “I think the gate is locked, they must close at four-thirty.”

Moni again checked her watch and replied to Danny, “I thought they closed at five?”

With confidence, Moni waltzed up to the idling car. With a slight forward lean and wave of her hand, she smiled through the glass until the police officer rolled down his passenger window. “Are you looking for me?” inquired Moni.

The serious-faced officer answered, “If you are the owner of that bus, I sure am.” Maybe I should growl and show my teeth.

“Yes, I am,” responded Moni. “What time does the gate close?” she asked, still thinking that the marina had closed and the gate was locked. However, from Moni’s furrowed eyebrows, I detected concern.

Gosh, there is no chance for a quick get-a-way if the gate is locked. But, of course, it is never possible to outrun the law in a VW bus. That occurs only in Fredrick’s dreams.

 The officer continued glaring at his computer while asking, “What is the deal with that license plate?”

That darn Fredrick is getting us in trouble. I will pee on his tires.    

Moni politely explained, “It is an antique plate, the year of the bus. The current and official plate is inside the bus.” She continued, “A North Carolina General Statue allows drivers of thirty-five year or older vehicles to display antique plates of the year it was manufactured instead of their current plate.” Fredrick wears a 1970 white license plate with red letters, 8548-TN. “My husband has a 1958 plate on his Austin-Healy.”

The officer’s face softened and remarked, “I saw the lone vehicle in the parking lot and thought it was stolen, so I checked the plate number on my computer and it wasn’t registered.” 

“I’ll show you the current plate. It’s stored behind the driver’s seat.”

That a girl, you just keep being nice to the authority. I prayed for Moni to smooth out this silly issue and cringed thinking about spending a night in jail with only bread for dinner. I don’t like bread. Good thing I just ate those bones.

“I trust you, no need to show me,” the officer politely responded and bid us good-bye. What a relief, let’s get home to the security of my crate, dog pad, and ducky toy.

On every hike I break the law by running off-leash and never get busted. That close proximity to a police officer fried my nerves. Moni must speak to Fredrick; he almost got me in the dog house.

Moni’s hair color, similar to the salt and pepper coloring in my fur, negated Fredrick’s tinted windows that are adorned with an assortment of stickers and his unregistered license plate. Consider if Chris, a twenty-something North Carolina State student, strolled up to the officer instead of his mother? Who would greet us, Andy Griffith or Mr. Hyde of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

To be continued:  

Chris will write about his encounter with a Chapel Hill police officer (who was a Mr. Hyde) when he was driving Frdrick and was the designated driver for his “of age” friends during his freshmen year at NC State.

Because many police officers are not familiar with antique plate regulations, it is advisable to carry a copy of your state’s General Statue for displaying antique plates on “senior citizen” vehicles in your vehicle.

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