Another Gem From Our Friend, J. L. Strickland

Editor’s note: There was so much reader response to our recent story from J. L. Strickland, we share another.  It is especially appropriate at this season when joy and mirth should abound.  If this doesn’t bring a chuckle, check your pulse.

“Back in the fifties, as I walked home from the mill-village junior high, our dear sweet neighbor, Mrs. Lois Hicks, standing by her gate, asked desperately if I would please help her for a minute? 

This distraught middle-age lady, voice shaking with concern, said there was a “kitty” in her trash can and she couldn’t get it out.  She was really agitated with worry, twitching and shaking.

“Would I help her?”  You’d better believe I would help her.  Being a dedicated, gung-ho Boy Scout, always on the lookout for a good deed to do,  I almost knocked down the slow-moving Miss Lois as I hurried inside their fence to the trash can.

Back then, we didn’t have local trash pickup; and most everybody burned their garbage in a back-yard oil drum. The Hicks’ trash can had seen considerable use and the bottom of the can was rusted away, leaving a hole wide enough for an animal to crawl through.   

I could see something scurrying around under the trash, but couldn’t get a good look at it, so I tilted the can a tad.  The critter still hid from me. Trying another tactic,  I pulled some of the garbage out to get a better look, with no results. After finally lowering the rusty can to the ground, I crawled inside a little ways.   

This was the first day of school after the Christmas holidays, and I was proudly wearing the new Levi’s jacket and jeans that Santa Claus had brought me.  I thought I was a really cool dude in that new denim outfit.  It came all the way from Mansour’s in Lagrange. The only place you could buy husky boys’ clothing.  And I was a real chunk.

Part way inside the can now, as I pulled some crumpled newspapers away that were blocking my view, I saw the “kitty.”  To my absolute, heart-stopping horror, I realized the feline intruder wasn’t a “kitty” at all.  Far from it—there, just inches from my terror-stricken chubby face, in all its furry, white-striped, nightmarish glory, bristled a riled-up “SKUNK!”

A skunk that immediately assumed a defensive posture, quickly aimed its lethal rear end in my direction, and sprayed into my face a full noxious blast of reeking skunk scent; instantly blinding me, and soaking my new Levi’s clothes.  (I had a similar experience on a blind date once, but that is another story.)

Sweet Lord, just the vile memory still takes my breath away — the skunk, not the blind date.

When I stumbled into our back yard, my mother, just home from her mill job, and my grandmother were taking clothes off the outside line. They wouldn’t have been any more startled if the Frankenstein’s Monster had lumbered into our yard.

They smelled me before they saw me.  I could barely see because my blood-red eyes were swollen shut. I staggered like a drunk, dizzy from lack of oxygen because I was holding my breath.  My faithful Collie dog, Zero, ran up to greet me, but stopped short and started snarling and snapping in my direction.  Zero, my bestest buddy for a decade,  didn’t want me near him.

They made me strip off in the car barn, refusing to let me go inside the house emanating skunk fumes.  My grandmother, a living fount of countrywoman lore,  got a can of tomato juice and told me to wash off with it; it didn’t help much.  

As a remedy for skunk spray, tomato juice is like spitting on a roaring forest fire.  

Then, stripping me to my shorts, they tried to wash me off with our raggedy old hose pipe; but the water was frozen in the hose because it lay coiled in the shade of the house.  This was well before global warming.  The temperature hovered in the low thirties when I got home, well before dark.

Finally, my grandmother got some kerosene and mixed it with a bucket of warm water and I scrubbed myself in the car barn.  It helped a little, but very little. I still smelled greatly like a polecat.  I had turned a mottled blue by the time I finally made it into the house, still wearing only my shorts, and climbed into our big clawfoot bathtub filled with scalding hot water.  

They dumped every cleaning product we had into the water, and the smell finally dissipated, somewhat.  Either that, or my olfactory apparatus had shut down in failure.  However,  I could still get a whiff of eau de polecat for weeks. My skin blistered and peeled off like I had been sunburned. 

I was back in my worn-out J.C. Penny Foremost jeans the next day.  My treasured Levi’s outfit was lost forever.  They didn’t burn my clothes.  They dug a hole at the edge of the yard and buried them.

You could smell skunk where I pulled the Levi’s off in the car barn well past Groundhog Day.  Zero, who usually slept in the car barn, started sleeping under the house.

If there was ever a case of overkill, it would have to be skunk spray.  It could be a thousand times weaker and still get the point across.

I think the Pentagon is missing a bet by not synthesizing skunk spray to use as a military weapon. There is not a human alive who can stand up to that devilish concoction.  A few well-placed skunk bombs dropped into the Middle East would bring Isis and the Taliban crawling out of their hideouts with their hands in the air, pleading for mercy.

A strategically detonated skunk missile would make even a Republican support health care reform and a tax-increase on millionaires. 

They don’t have to pay me for this suggestion.  I offer it in the spirit of patriotism.  The sacrifice of my beloved new Levi’s should not have been in vain.”


A Christmas Story

Editor’s note: J. L. Strickland is a retired textile worker from east Alabama who has spent his life in what the locals know as the “valley.”  It straddles the Alabama-Georgia line and for generations was home to numerous mills were cotton was turned into cloth.  Strickland is a master story teller and from time to time sends along one of his pieces.  Here is one that is especially appropriate at this season.

“Growing up in a cotton-mill village, I knew families that struggled.  However, I didn’t know anyone not fed, clothed and sheltered.  While some came close at times, I never knew anyone actually destitute.  As a rule, mill hands took care of their own.

But I well remember the first time I witnessed abject poverty. The first Christmas I worked in the mill, the third shift Weave Room employees made up money for a family on hard times.  Mill hands did this on a regular basis.  Love offerings, they called them.

(Textile hourly and piece-rate employees were traditionally the lowest paid workers in America.  While some might have had bigger wallets, there were none with bigger hearts.)

The workers asked Mr. Grady, an older, respected loom fixer in the weave shed, to deliver the love offering to the family.   I doffed cloth on Mr. Grady’s section, and he asked me to ride with him.  The memory comes back to me every Christmas.

These unfortunates lived across the “Hooch” (Chattahoochee River) in a sagging, three-room shack with peeling paint.   The husband, wearing faded overalls and his hair uncombed, opened the door, eying us suspiciously.  He brightened when Mr. Grady explained our visit and handed the wary man the plump Christmas card containing the money. He invited us inside only after Mr. Grady asked if we could step in out of the cold.

Their old-fashioned wood-burning cook stove had warmed the tiny kitchen to almost an uncomfortable temperature. The family sat around the beat-up table, eating sliced bread smeared with jelly. If they had anything to drink, it wasn’t visible.

It was quickly apparent both the fellow and his wife were “slow,” as they used to say. They had three freckled-faced, ill-clothed children, all very young. But the kicker was the baby.  Their baby, wrapped in blanket scraps and old towels, slept in a cardboard box behind the wood-burning stove. We didn’t know the infant was there until it started crying.  What I took as the storage box for the stove wood turned out to be a makeshift cardboard baby crib. 

After the baby started bawling, the woman lifted it out of the box.  I noticed that she kept furtively glancing at the money in her husband’s hand. He had removed the wad of bills from inside the Christmas card, but he hadn’t counted it.

Finally, the woman said shyly, “Is there enough money there to buy the baby some milk?”

When the husband told her to hush about that,  the woman, irritated now,  said more aggressively, “Well, you know she ain’t had a bottle since we run out of milk yes’ diddy. She can’t keepa just dranking water.”

Mr. Grady and I just looked at each other. As if to answer our puzzlement, the woman offered, “She can’t suck my milk. Hit don’t agree with her.”

Being just sixteen, I wasn’t accustomed to hearing this sort of candor about adult matters.  Especially female matters.

Mr. Grady assured the wife that they had more than enough money to buy milk – as well as food and maybe some presents for the other kids.  (If I remember correctly, the love offering came to  about $150. A pretty good amount in 1956.)

The woman gave a wan smile and said, ” There’ll be enough if somebody I know don’t spend it all on whiskey.”

The husband snapped, “You need to shut up!” 

Mr. Grady, a small, but confident fellow, said sharply to the husband, “I ‘speck you better get that baby some milk before you do anything else.”  The husband glared at Mr. Grady, but didn’t reply.

When we left, the fellow followed us out and jumped in his old truck.  He headed toward Lagrange.  I couldn’t say what he bought with the money.

On our way back to town,  Mr. Grady said he was gonna get his Masonic group to buy a few presents for those kids.

I don’t remember now whether he did or not.  I’m not sure we ever discussed it again.

I wish I had a warm, happy ending for this story, but I don’t know what happened to these people.  When I drove out that way a few months later, the house was empty.  I never saw them again.

The little shack stayed empty for years, finally completely collapsing in on itself.  In time, wild roses completely covered the rubble. It was quite picturesque in the spring.  Finally, the owner burned the wreckage.

But that little yuletide trip opened my eyes to the terrible circumstances in which some people find themselves.  Sometimes it’s their fault, sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw.  Lady Luck can be a cold, indifferent benefactor.  In time, I learned that, too.”


The Earth Can Spin Again. Another Iron Bowl Is In The Books.

It is the day after another football game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama, called the “Iron Bowl” in these parts.  And orange and blue flags are fluttering atop cars in celebration of Auburn’s 48-45 win.

It was a wild one for certain.  Alabama ran a kickoff back for a touchdown.  Auburn ran an intercepted pass 100 yards for a touchdown.  Auburn’s field goal kicker had struggled in recent games, but yesterday was a perfect 4-4 to provide the difference in the game.

Like two prizefighters who simply refuse to be bested, the teams swapped blow after blow.  Ten times the lead in the game changed.  One would score, then the other.  Most football gurus predicted a low-scoring game.  So much for their collective wisdom.

And for the second time in the last seven Auburn vs. Alabama games, coach Nick Saban learned that the final outcome may come down to what happens in just one second.

In 2013, with the score tied and the game headed to overtime, Saban insisted to the officials that there was still one second remaining in the game, just enough time for Alabama to try a long field goal for the win.  The result was the famous (for Auburn fans) KICK SIX.  Bama did try the field goal, but Auburn had defensive back Chris Davis waiting in the end zone to run it back if possible.

And 109 yards later Davis was in the end zone at the other end of the field and Auburn was the victor.

This time Auburn coach Gus Malzahn insisted that there was one second left in the first half, enough time for field goal kicker Anders Carlson to try for three points.  His successful effort made the halftime score 31-27 in favor of Alabama.  This time Saban augured that one second was NOT enough time for such a play.

Finally it came down to Auburn holding a 48-45 lead with two minutes left and Bama facing 4th down near the Auburn end zone.  Saban’s field goal kicker Joseph Bulovas lined up in hopes of tying the game,  But as such things sometimes happen, the kick hit the left upright and bounced harmlessly to the ground.

Auburn needed one more first down to win the game.  Facing 4th and four, Malzahn outmaneuvered Saban with his play calling and a penalty gave Auburn a first down and the win.

Bedlam quickly followed.  My sister and niece in Black Mountain, NC called and sang the Auburn fight song.  A school superintendent in North Dakota sent me an email.  I got a text from Nebraska.

Kendall Leland will go to her 5th grade class in Cape Girardeau, MO tomorrow and tell her friends all about being at the game.  Her father went to Auburn, her grandmother lives in Opelika, and pilgrimages from eastern Missouri to Auburn games are common place for her family.   Her Thanksgiving was a little bit of turkey and a whole lot of Auburn.

Sully Van Sice is also in the 5th grade.  But his trip to school in Fairhope tomorrow will not be as jubilant as Kendall’s.  He cheers for Bama.  But not his grandmother.  At Sully’s insistence, he and grandma had a small wager on the outcome.  For the next month, Sully will have to make up her bed every day.

No doubt thousands of such stories could be told across Alabama today.

All just a part of the annual madness we call the Iron Bowl.



An Angel On My Shoulder

Long ago I realized that apparently the sound of tires on asphalt is my own special brand of therapy.  How else can I explain all the miles I cover and time in my car?

I graduated from Auburn 53 years ago.  I doubt there have been many of those years when I didn’t drive at least 30,000 miles.  (I just checked my records and have driven 35,000 miles since last November.  And yes, I do have the record.)  At that rate I’ve covered 1.5 million miles in the last half century.

And I have often given thanks that I have never had an accident, that every log truck I’ve ever met stayed on their side of the road, that someone didn’t run a red light and find me in their way.  Surely the good Lord has played a role in my safety.  For which I am certainly grateful.

However, my luck almost ended on a recent Thursday afternoon.

If you get off I-85 at the Tuskegee-Franklin exit about halfway between Montgomery and Auburn and head north, you are on highway 49.  Stay on it long enough and you get to Cheaha Mountain.   But this day I was only going as far as Oskars, a restaurant near Still Waters on Lake Martin, to have lunch with Joe Windle, superintendent of Tallapoosa County schools.

While highway 49 is very serviceable, it has its shares of twists and turns as it heads into Alabama’s Piedmont region.  If you come up from behind on a slow moving vehicle, patience is your friend,  Straight stretches where you can pass someone are few and far between.

It was raining when I headed back towards Montgomery.  Not hard rain, just a slow drizzle.

I was rounding a curve when it happened.  In a microsecond I was off the road on the right side.  Was not speeding, did not slip.  Just somehow I was suddenly staring at a washed out gully and pine tress.  There was no shoulder.  My first thought was “this ain’t gonna end well.”

I jerked the wheel and to my utter amazement made it back to the pavement.  Fortunately, there was not an on-coming vehicle because I was on the wrong side of the road.  Debris I gathered on the underside of the car was dragging the road.  Coming to a place to pull off  I got out and tried to clear some of it away.

I will never understand how I got the car back on the road.  My only thought is that an angel was riding with me and grabbed the steering wheel.

Needless to say, it was a sobering experience.  So much so that a few days later I went back up highway 49 to find the spot.  I still don’t know what kept me out of the gulley and pine trees.

We are now celebrating the Thanksgiving season.  It has special meaning for me this year.

And I hope it does for you as well.  But not for the same reason.

Here Comes Another Iron Bowl

Once a year, the rest of the world is oblivious to most folks in Alabama.  The stock market can crash, a tsunami may wipe some country from the face of the earth, Old Faithful may forget to shoot water out of the ground and Niagara Falls may become a trickle–but none of that matters.

Because this is the week the football teams of Auburn and Alabama play one another in what Auburn Coach Shug Jordan long ago dubbed  the “Iron Bowl”.  For a handful of days, nothing else matters.  Even the pathetic sight of Jeff Sessions groveling at the feet of President Trump.  Every where you look, people will be wearing red and white or orange and blue.

I was a freshman at Auburn University in the fall of 1961 when I saw my first Iron Bowl.  In those days this annual clash took place at Birmingham’s Legion Field.  Bear Bryant was just beginning his 25-year reign as coach of the Crimson tide.  He beat Auburn 19 times, including a stretch of nine straight in the 1970’s.

But Auburn hired Pat Dye, a Bryant disciple, in 1981 and the series became competitive again.  During his career at Auburn, Dye beat Bama seven times and lost six.  However, Dye is remembered as much for getting the annual contest moved from Legion Field to Auburn as for his success against the team from Tuscaloosa.

The first game on Auburn’s campus was in 1989.  I was there.  Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the country.  Auburn won 30-20.  The first game in Tuscaloosa during the modern era was in 2000.  I was there with my son Kevin.  Auburn won 9-0.  It was a beastly day with the temperature in the mid-30s and sleet falling.  (The game was also played in Tuscaloosa in 1895 and 1901.  Auburn won both.)

Since the game left Birmingham and moved to Auburn and Tuscaloosa, it has been played ten times in Tuscaloosa and 14 times in Auburn.  Auburn has won five times in Tuscaloosa and nine times in Auburn.  Tommy Tuberville, who wants to be one of Alabama’s U.S. senators now, was the Auburn coach from 1999 to 2007.  He beat Bama seven out of the nine times he coached against them.

I don’t know how many Auburn vs. Alabama games I have seen in person.  A lot for sure.  I was at Legion Fiend in 1969 when Auburn won 49-26 and late in the game Auburn punter Connie Frederick ran more than 80 yards on a fake punt to score.  I was there in 1972 when Auburn blocked two punts and won 17-16.  I was there in 2013 when Chris Davis ran a field goal attempt 109 yards on the last play of the game for a 34-28 Auburn win.  I watched in disbelief on TV in 2010 when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton engineered a 28-27 win in  Tuscaloosa after falling behind 24-0.

Is this obsession healthy?  I’m sure many people in faraway places would say it is not.  No doubt they probably belittle our devotion to a GAME.  But this is OK as they don’t understand the collective psyche of this state–for good or bad.  Nor do they know much about pot likker, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, dinner on the grounds and all night singings.

So bring on the Iron Bowl.  It is uniquely ours.




Checking The Bucket List: Coalwood, WV

It’s not hard to find Coalwood, WV.  Go north on highway 19 out of Abingdon, VA, take a left on highway 16 in Tazewell, VA and don’t get in a hurry because the road soon clings hard to what little space there is between a meandering creek bank and whatever mountains you are passing.

After a bit you will go through War, Cucumber and Caretta and find Coalwood, where the road takes a hard turn to the right.  Truth is, you will find what used to be Coalwood because there is scant left of what once was a thriving mining village of 2,000.

But the real question is: why would anyone go searching for Coalwood, WV?

For me, it started with a book I read more than a decade ago that told the story of Homer Hickam, Jr. and his teenage years in McDowell County.  A story that recounted how Homer, better known as Sonny, and his friends Roy Lee, O’Dell, Billy, Quentin and Sherman learned to build rockets.  In fact, they learned so well that they won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair.

As things do sometimes, the book captured my attention and I filed Coalwood away in my mind, promising that if the opportunity ever came along, I would pay my respects.  So one August day in 2019, I paid a visit to this little spit of West Virginia.

The story goes that a George Carter wandered through the hills and hollows of McDowell County in the early 1900s and found coal.  He bought 20,000 acres and over time, built Coalwood, most of which he owned lock, stock and barrel.  Everything belonged to the company.  Houses, school, company store, doctor, dentist, church, post office, utilities, everything.

Homer’s daddy was the mine superintendent.  Coal was his life–and his death–and at a young age Sonny determined that it would not be his.  Oddly enough it was an event on the other side of the world from Coalwood that gave purpose to young Homer.  Russia sent Sputnik into the heavens in the fall of 1957 and when Homer watched from his backyard as the first space craft passed far, far above he set his heart on building rockets.

Decades later Homer recalled it all in his book Rocket Boys.  I could relate to the book for the simple reason that Homer and I are the same age.  But while he was learning to build rockets in the mountains of West Virginia, I was chopping cotton in south Alabama.  And it was Sputnik that convinced my father that I should study engineering at Auburn.  So while Homer was at Virginia Tech becoming an engineer, I was at Auburn coming face-to-face with the realization that calculus was not my pathway to success.

At one end of Coalwood’s main thoroughfare these days is a large metal sign proclaiming it to be home of The Rocket Boys.  But rust is about to reclaim the sign, just as nature is reclaiming Coalwood.  The house Homer grew up in is across the street from the only store in town.  But most all of Homer’s boyhood hometown is gone.  The railroad, the mine tipple, even the post office.  Only a handful of houses remain.

It’s hard to believe that a bustling community was once here.  That this was were boyhood friends, spurred on by the encouragement and support of a teacher, Freida Joy Riley, created the Big Creek Missile Agency and launched their rockets from a coal slack site dubbed Cape Coalwood.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the mine closed.  Coalwood closed with it.  But the dreams this little community birthed never died.

So I took highway 19 at Abingdon and took a left on highway 16 at Tazewell a few months ago.  Not so much as to see another mountain and winding creek as to be reminded of how powerful the human spirit truly is.

Editor’s note: Homer Hickam Jr. became an engineer, working for NASA in Huntsville from 1981 to his retirement in 1998.  He trained astronauts.  Rocket Boys was published in 1998.  The movie about Homer and Coalwood, October Sky, was released in 1999.  He has written a number of books, including The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone and From Rocket Boys to October Sky.  They are all about Coalwood and I have enjoyed each of them.  He lives in Huntsville.