Back to Cowan

June 14, 2021

It was time to go to Cowan, Tennessee, Sandy’s hometown. It’s a spot on the map in Franklin County, 100 miles southeast of Nashville, 40 miles west of Chattanooga, tucked in below the long Cumberland Plateau, which stretches from the Smokies down to Alabama. I use those references to place it for others and get mostly baffled nods. We took the grandsons, my idea of a different kind of vacation for inquisitive seven- and four-year-old boys.

Cowan is a humble place, now about 900 souls, down from 2,000, once with three stoplights, now none. Many years ago, when we were first married and living in Nashville, we went often to visit Sandy’s parents. Then a couple of local employers moved away or went out of business and my father-in-law was laid off. Although the house was paid for, he and Sandy’s mom sold it, pulled up roots, and moved to Nashville. A few years later we were living in Virginia. Two decades passed, then they were gone.

We went back a couple of times a few years ago, detouring from trips to Nashville. For a while the place seemed to be perking up. A nice Italian restaurant opened, then a bagel and coffee shop. A local guy refurbished a historic downtown home as a bed & breakfast. But it didn’t last. The state built a bypass outside town. Traffic on Cowan’s main street, U.S. 41A, once a main route north and east, dried up. So did the new businesses. They’ve all disappeared. Young people who as kids attended Cowan Elementary went to high school in Winchester, the county seat. Then they left for good.

Cowan was well situated to be prosperous, a stop on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railroad, which attracted industry starting in the 1840s when local leaders recognized the area needed something to replace cotton-harvesting.  Cowan was the last stop for trains climbing the steep Cumberland Plateau and the site where pusher engines were hooked up. The Cowan Mountain Tunnel was finished in 1852. Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company, called Cumberland Cement, opened a Cowan plant in 1926. At its operating peak the plant could produce two thousand barrels of Portland cement every day. At some point the plant was owned by Gulf + Western Industries, which had a big office in Nashville. Then G+W was acquired and disappeared. So did the plant.

Cowan always has had a spark for me, not just because Sandy grew up there. The Plateau, called Monteagle Mountain, seems to keep the weather mild when the upper reaches get snow. Cowan’s famous neighbor is the University of the South, the prestigious Episcopal school at Sewanee, six steep winding miles up 41A on the Plateau. The school, simply called Sewanee, occupies 1,000 gorgeously wooded acres of gorgeous Gothic architecture. The place seems literally an ivy tower without ivy, an otherworldly island of academia between gritty Franklin and Marion Counties. I once gave a talk to students there. A colleague rented a house on campus, now hidden by new forest.   

Franklin County’s and Cowan’s history has its hard points. Markers at Sewanee and around the county bring up the tragic story of the Trail of Tears, when in the 1830s the U.S. Army uprooted the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Native American tribes in nine Southeastern states and forced them to walk to bleak reservations in Oklahoma. Tennessee was a primary route. The signs strike a dissonant note within walking distance of Sewanee’s lush greenery.

We stayed in Monteagle, at the top of the Plateau, just off I-24, about eight miles out of Cowan. For our Sewanee visit we drove slowly through stately stone gate and past the academic buildings. Since the students had just left, the streets and walkways were empty and serene. We turned onto Tennessee street, which ends at the edge of the Plateau, and gawked at the spectacular 50-mile view of deep-green Middle Tennessee farmland.  The boys and I stretched our legs on a nearby trail, then stopped at the university bookstore to let the older one browse.

That evening after dinner we took a drive from Monteagle down a mountain road I had never traveled. We passed into neighboring Grundy County, where the road stretches from the foot of the mountain out into the rich farm and pastureland of Middle Tennessee. New corn grew along the road for miles, cattle grazed near prosperous-looking homesteads. It was a pretty evening. Farmers were still out working their machines.

I didn’t remember how the road down the mountain twists sharply and steeply until it spins us onto the straightway into Cowan. We drove through Sandy’s old neighborhood and stopped at her childhood home, pleased to see it had been nicely kept up by the same couple who bought it from her parents. But up and down the street, houses showed the wear of hard times.

We stopped at the railroad museum across the tracks in the center of town where you can learn about the prosperity of former years, when the place was a minor rail hub. The boys climbed over an old engine and fuel car, balancing along the ledge where coalmen used to stand. We stood near the tracks and watched a 100-car CSX coal train chug through, heading up the mountain powered by three locomotives, the engineer sounding his claxon and waving at the boys.

The five-mile drive into Winchester, the county seat, took us past a couple of shut-down factories and the former site of a popular motel, now a vacant lot. The roadside burger joint where Sandy worked as a teenager is long gone. The Catholic school she attended has been closed, the church now is hemmed in by drive-in banks. The city streets are busy, but 41A continues as a dreary stretch of the usual small-town dreck: fast food, car dealerships and car washes, storefront Mexican eateries, 7-Elevens, payday loan shops, and, of course, a giant Walmart.

Hard to say when or if we’ll see Cowan again. Sandy has lost interest, but the place still has a strange attraction. We looked back at a complicated world, a mix of affluence and depression, rough seams of poverty and rich history, the unique history of the Mountain South. The kids seemed to enjoy it, although I’m not sure exactly what part they enjoyed. Someday, when they’re older, maybe we’ll go back.   

The Spy

June 7, 2021

Who reads works of non-fiction twice? Well, some do. I do. Who has read The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre twice?  I have. I hope others have, and will. It takes at least two reads to grasp fully its profound impact.

Macintyre tells the chillingly true, but both tragic and heroic story of Oleg Gordievsky, who grew to maturity inside the Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB. In 1974 Gordievsky, while still a KGB agent in Copenhagen and later in London, became a deep-cover source for MI6, Great Britain’s spy service. Until 1985 he passed Soviet secrets to the Brits. After the KGB learned that he was a double agent but before he could be executed, MI6, in a brilliant operation, “exfiltrated” him from Moscow through Finland. He still lives near London under an assumed name.

As much as Western governments valued his service, given at the risk of his life through those 11 years, the question persists: apart from his evolving political beliefs, was he fundamentally a traitor? To escape he abandoned his wife and two daughters, who knew nothing of his second life, leaving them to hostility, deprivation, and misery in Moscow. Six years later they were reunited, but had become strangers, and he and his wife quickly divorced.

Gordievsky’s defenders point to his motive: although groomed as a spy nearly from childhood (his father was a Stalin-era agent and hatchet man, his brother also KGB), after the Berlin Wall was erected he became disgusted with the Soviet system: its cruelty, its moral poverty, its hostility to the human spirit. They point by contrast to the American suspected of betraying him, CIA official Aldrich Ames, who said bluntly, “I did it for the money.” Ames now is doing life without parole in a federal penitentiary.

Yet Gordievsky also acknowledged that when he first posted to Copenhagen he fell in love with the personal freedom, the vibrant cultural scene, the rich standard of living that so starkly set off the grubbiness of Soviet life.

Macintyre and others argue that the secrets Gordievsky delivered helped NATO to counter Soviet military plans and eventually win the Cold War. He was celebrated and decorated by Western governments. Meanwhile, even Russians who despised the Soviet system considered Gordievsky a duplicitous conniver who used friends and family in his betrayal and escape.

We know Gordievsky and Ames both lied in their own conscious, deliberate ways. Right now, we see lies everywhere. Trump and his subalterns lied about the election and still are lying. We know that, based on dozens of investigations and court rulings. Theirs are calculated, cold-blooded lies. We know of pathetic, shameful lies, like those of Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said two weeks ago that wearing masks to avoid covid is the equivalent of Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars. But then, Trump’s and Greene’s audience have their own notions of truth and falsehood.

In these examples, lying is aimed at a larger end. For Trump and Greene, the larger end is a twisted perception of American political values. In the espionage world, Macintyre writes, the lying is aimed at helping one political system gain advantage over another.

Many spies anesthetize their duplicity. Macintyre calls attention, again and again, to alcohol abuse by intelligence officials, both Soviet and Western. Heavy drinking was a way of life in the KGB. Gordievsky’s KGB brother drank himself to death at 39. The British traitor Kim Philby, who defected to the USSR in 1963 regularly “drank himself into a stupor,” says Macintyre. Ames drank. The booze, in his and other cases precipitated treason and helped reveal it. The spies who were drunks drank to blot out the pressures of life distorted by falsehood and pretense.

Gordievsky deceived his KGB superiors, his colleagues, his friends, his family, day after day, year after year. For all his skills at duplicity, he lived a private hell. He confronted the agonizing question: what is truth? He built his career on lies, persevering in the conviction that he was battling a regime that enslaved and murdered its own citizens. He knew from the moment he crossed over that a careless step or word would mean a bullet in the back of the head.

Puttering in my suburban South Carolina backyard, I wonder about these things. We ourselves all have said things that we know are not true, sometimes when we see a higher purpose—sometimes not. Again, the question: what is truth? As Gordievsky defined it in the 1970s and 1980s, truth was the recognition of the nobility of democracy standing against the bleakness of Soviet totalitarianism, that is, truth versus falsehood. The political leadership of the West stood up and defended him.

Today in the U.S., we are challenged to recognize and defend truth or surrender to lies. Our choice, compared to Gordievsky’s, may seem mundane and obscure. But we can see that truth now, today, is defined by some as doing and saying anything necessary to reclaim political office, to elevate political party over country and Constitution. The country now endures a blizzard of lies wrapped in platitudes that conceal ignorance, bigotry, greed. We may not grasp the essence of Gordievsky’s struggle. But we can understand that truth, his and ours, emerges when forged in sacrifice and courage. Only then it endures.

Memorial Time

May 31, 2021

The National Cemetery at Quantico, Va., is a gem of a place, perched on the rolling green hills outside the big Marine Corps base called “Crossroads of the Corps.” And, as at so many other hallowed spots, veterans and their families will gather there today to honor the men and women who have fallen.

The Corps is in charge, all personnel in dress blues. Aging vets from a nearby nursing home are brought over by bus. Officers and enlisted persons of the other services, some finished with active duty, show up in uniform. Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group are always there. 

The ceremony is brief, usually one hour. The Marines parade the colors. The base commander offers his welcome, a chaplain leads an invocation.  Local veterans leaders say a few words.  A retired colonel in colonial garb recites a poem honoring the flag. A federal official gives a keynote. A Corps honor guard fires a salute, a Marine plays a solemn Taps.  

The crowd, mostly veterans, spouses, children, drifts away slowly, as if reluctant to lose their sense of the sacred that is the essence of the place. As they linger, the narrow roads that thread between fields of headstones fill up with the vehicles of those who come to honor the men and women interred on those lush, shaded hills. Volunteers have marked each headstone with a small flag. Families bring flowers. Some kneel and pray. Some cry.

For the first time in many years, we’ll miss the hushed reverence of Memorial Day at Quantico. Meanwhile, the solemnity and timelessness of honoring the fallen has taken a hit. The sense of obligation to country and to those who serve was trashed by Americans who attacked the Capitol on January 6 and wounded 140 police officers in an act of insurrection, some using American flags as spears. Some of the attackers are veterans, some are active-duty. Some of their political patrons pretend nothing very serious happened. Thousands of fake patriots still cheer for overturning the result of the presidential election.

I don’t remember exactly when we started going to Quantico for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The services for both are similar, as to be expected. But it seemed the right place to be, even more appropriate than Arlington, where the president speaks to thousands and lays a wreath in front of cameras.

Sandy and I went to Quantico I guess because of my own history at the base. The Quantico service doesn’t get celebrity four-stars or Cabinet members. It doesn’t get the Marine Band, although some of Quantico’s musicians are there. No U.S. Senators show up, in my recollection. It could be because the Marine Corps is the smallest service with the smallest budget. The Corps donated the land for the cemetery in 1983. Marines are used to doing without big bucks. So the ceremony is, well, austere, in a peculiar way that strips away theatrics. 

So the Quantico remembrance, simply put, gets people who served, former and retired enlisted and company- and field-grade officers and their families. Usually it’s a couple hundred folks. They stand for the colors and ponder the meaning of some reverent words. No show. Lots of gray heads.

I wondered about the impression the Quantico service makes. The tone and content aren’t polished and rehearsed. The people in charge aren’t professional stage managers. The talks come across as spontaneous, heartfelt, but at times a little rough-edged, with a little stuttering, sometimes a tad too long. Maybe they convey for those who served and those close to those who served something true, the truth of service to country, which is, for Memorial Day, the truth of war.   

I missed landing in Vietnam as a second lieutenant by an accident of scheduling. I arrived on Okinawa in September 1972 to join the Third Marine Division, after staying on in Q-town for a three-month tactical communications course.  On getting to Oki, the “Rock,” I met my Officer Basic School classmates who went infantry and shipped promptly to Nam after our May graduation. The Corps then was pulling out of active combat operations and had started transitioning units back to Okinawa.

The Rock then was a rough-edged place, but not nearly as rough as Vietnam, or Beirut in 1983, or any of the other bloody places Marines and the other services have been sent, ordered to do messy, impossible things. Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind. What stayed with us, those of us who came home, was the sense that if Americans are going to have Memorial Days and Veterans Days, let’s not pretty them up with stage lights and professional eloquence. The troops know, after all, that they collectively represent less than one percent of the U.S. population.

I get weary of the polite crowd applause for the dozen or so active-duty service personnel given free passes to big-league ball games. They stand and wave, then sit, and that’s that. The rest of the crowd moves on. But I recall my days on Okinawa and my Third Division buddies. It was a different time, close to fifty years ago. The men and women serving today have better equipment. But really nothing has changed. Every day, in every place, they’re looking at the abiding truth of service: things can get ugly quickly, they may never go home.

The quiet rituals of Quantico leave out the hoopla, the parade, the TV cameras. The local folks knew the truth of service better than how to stage a show. In that wooded corner of Virginia they offer the prayers, the callouts to the vets, the moment of Taps. Duty and sacrifice sums it up. Honor the flag and the fallen. Call it Memorial Day.

Customer Service

May 24, 2021

Sometimes I wonder: what was I thinking? Last week was one of those times. It went like this:

“Agent Vishat, are you there?” (Name altered.)

Silence. Or what I think of as silence when the Best Buy “chat” agent signs off without saying goodbye.

It was 7:28 PM. At 7:13 he had ordered me to “Open the tools/app Under Sensors tab, navigate to GPS sensor (if available) and confirm latitude and longitude are being detected.”

I typed, “Where do I find the tools/app?” 

Silence.

I typed, “Where do I find the Sensors tab? I’m not a computer expert.”

I stared at the screen. Minutes passed. More minutes. I never heard from Agent V again.

He joined a select group, my third chat agent of the day. Earlier I thought I was communicating with Agent Pradack. Just then I noticed the power cable lying on the floor, unplugged. I had jostled the laptop and yanked the cable from the wall outlet. Moments later the battery ran low, the screen went black. I mumbled something. Replugging it, I got back to the chat room and met Agent Vishat, but only long enough for him to disappear.

Before Pradack, I was chatted up by a guy who promised me a call in 38 minutes. An hour passed, no call.

I waited for Agent V for about 15 minutes, then surrendered and shut down the laptop. I guessed he and Pradack were having drinks in a bar across the street from the call center and laughing at my humiliating confession that I’m not a computer expert. 

Those few minutes ended my very strange week in the tech world. I hope it has ended. It started when I tried to navigate to the website of Garmin, the big precision instruments company that about a year ago sold me a GPS watch. Shortly afterward, the watchband broke. I set the watch aside for a few months. Finally I decided I wanted a new band.

I found what looked like the website for Garmin, showing images of watches and other navigation devices. A “chat box” opened. “What is your issue?” someone typed.  I can do this, I thought, and replied, “I’m looking for a watchband for a Forerunner 25.” The typist answered, “A technician will call you in three to five minutes.”

That’s customer service, I thought. The company makes a phone call to sell a watchband?

Sure enough, in five minutes Charles called. “Are you with Garmin?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “I can upgrade your computer’s GPS and apply the upgrade to all your other devices.” I thought well, I haven’t used the watch in a year, it must need upgrading.

“I need to take control of your computer,” he said. He directed me to a link called Ultraviewer and instructed me to select “remote control.” That seemed reasonable. He’ll take care of this, rather than have me attempt to follow his techie instructions. I clicked, he took control of the laptop.

“Uh-oh,” he said. “You have 6,000 foreign intrusions. They are likely from Russia.” He showed me a screen filled with rows of data labeled “foreign.”

That’s awful news, I told myself. What about my anti-virus protection program? “That has expired,” Charles said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get rid of the intrusions and install protection. It will take 30 to 45 minutes.”

For nearly an hour I stared open-mouthed at the laptop screen as thousands of rows of technical stuff flashed by. Is this what computer viruses look like, I wondered. I saw numbers, letters, symbology, as if I had been dragged into some deep technical ocean depth, the Challenger Deep of software. Finally it stopped. Another screen flashed in front of me that resembled the earlier “foreign” stuff. All the rows were gone.

“That will be $299.99,” Charles said. In shock I gave him my credit card number. I wasn’t planning on $300 for computer work that morning. He sent me a receipt from Mysoft Squad.

The next day I felt uneasy, although the computer seemed fine. I wondered about Mysoft Squad. I looked it up and found a Better Business Bureau link filled with angry complaints about scams by ripoff artists who target people looking for GPS products and software upgrades, in many cases from Garmin, and sell them fake services. I was directed to file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Friends and family advised me to get the computer checked. I dragged it to Best Buy, they did their standard sweep, found nothing wrong.

I wanted my money back but the credit card company won’t dispute a claim unless you tell the vendor you don’t want his product or service. The last person I wanted to talk to was Charles.  Did he actually do anything in his hour controlling my laptop? I described the rows of data that flashed across the screen to the Best Buy rep. “All that stuff was fake,” he said. “The website was fake, too.”

I wanted some assurance that the GPS, wherever that is, was okay. So I called the chat line and met P, V, and the first guy whose name I never got.

It’s now a cliché: technology has transformed life. Many, maybe most of us use computers to get through the day, every day. Intrusions? Viruses? Who but a trained computer engineer really understands what they are?  As with other things in life, when we want new tech stuff, or to fix broken things, we look for someone who says he’ll help us right now. Someone like Charles.

We did cancel the credit card. Garmin is warning customers not to be snookered into buying GPS upgrades or other products by phone. The FTC warns that “many of the targets of these scams are vulnerable elderly people.” Well—thanks for that, FTC.

The Do-Over

May 17, 2021

The Grandview Lodge is tucked away on a quiet road that leads from Waynesville, N.C., up steeply onto the eastern edge of the Great Smokies. Across the road, a fast-moving stream rushes down the mountain. The walls and floors have been finished with a deep dark stain. The walls are decorated with fading decades-old black-and-white portraits of local folks. The lobby was furnished—littered—with odd antique household items. Classic hit tunes echoed faintly from an old stereo. A stack of dog-eared novels that were popular ten or twenty years ago sat on the front desk next to a sign that reads, “Forget your book? Read one of ours.”

We got to the lodge a week ago Friday, making several wrong turns, it’s well off the beaten track. The place is run by a husband and wife, who live with their children on the property. It was quiet when we arrived in early afternoon. The husband showed us the spacious dining area and a wide porch, furnished with old rocking chairs, that wraps around the house and looks out at the road. He named several local restaurants. The wife, in blue-jean overalls, showed us our room, more dark wood, austere but comfortable. I asked about morning coffee since we weren’t staying for breakfast.

When we returned in early evening I drove past the lodge and continued a couple of miles up the road, which twists higher and steeper. We both got nervous as the grade grew sharper. Looking back, the Smokies rose in the north just beyond town. The peaks are green only as high as spring has crept, then winter-brown to their summits.  As night fell they glimmered faintly blue-purple as a gentle mist engulfed them.  

Back at the lodge we saw a few more guests, but the place still was peaceful. We walked out to the porch and tried the rocking chairs. A chill was moving in, we didn’t stay long.

The lodge summoned for me images from odd bits of history I’ve read about those parts. Generations had passed since the place was built, likely as a stout bulwark against Cherokee and Choctaw war parties. Two centuries ago western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee was a violent wilderness. Scottish and Irish farmers, traders, and down-and-outers poured over the Appalachians to fill in the rough boundaries of the Mountain South.

We were there partly to reprise our ambitions for our 2018 road trip along old U.S. 66 halfway across America. As in this rustic spot, at all our stops we wondered what happened before we arrived. Our thinking, our priorities, our plans have changed, turned upside down since then. Sickness, the pandemic, and our move South have done that. But we still feel the spark.

But the reminiscing was a distraction. The main event of this two-day junket was my Black Rock mulligan, my do-over of the mountain climb (March 29 post) that I attempted with old friends, mostly other former Virginians. I fell short on that chilly mid-March Saturday.

We rose as dawn broke and drove west to the trailhead near Sylva, 20 miles past Waynesville. There I met up with a new friend, Mike, who gave up his competitive position in the Black Rock field that day to help as I turned hypothermic. He drove out from his home near Asheville for what for him was a conditioning climb he really didn’t need. I was counting on him to bail me out of my failure to achieve something I knew I could achieve.   

We scrambled forward up over the first climb, kicking rocks, then up a long straightaway. We slogged onto the switchbacks, up, up, then farther up, as the peaks to the west fell away below. We felt faint sunshine as the trail wrapped the mountain’s south side, then a bracing chill when we turned north. In just over three miles, at nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, we reached the break in the underbrush that opened to the final one-third-mile-long single-track chute trail, 650 feet of climb to the base of the summit. Mike pointed to the turn, which winds up nearly out of sight.

We pushed into the chute, searching for footing with each step, grabbing for roots, branches, rocks, finally stepping out to the highest point I had reached that March day. The rest is pure climbing. We tiptoed up and around and over house-sized boulders until we could slither onto the final not-quite flat surface of the top of the mountain.

We sat at the top for 30 minutes, stunned at the vastness of the green-blue peaks surrounding us that stretch across parts of three states. Far below us, eagles glided on updrafts. The air was still and silent, not a branch stirred. We picked out the specks of buildings bunched together in Sylva, five miles away. We bumped fists. Then we slid off the rock and down through the chute. I checked the Black Rock box.

As we drove home that afternoon I wondered why I bothered. Why does anyone, after missing the brass ring, reach for it again? In my memory the mountain stared at me. Wat does failure mean? Who wants to live with it? Mike and Sandy were willing. With a few tweaks I could climb Black Rock. I missed it once. So I went back.

Seeds

May 10, 2021

The little house in which we landed here in the Upstate has too-small closets, oddly placed light fixtures and switches, a creaky, paint-chipped deck. That is, it has character, which is what we looked for, instead of a sleek new-build shell in a treeless subdivision. Three weekends in, we did without hot water for three days when the water heater failed. Our first new home in 33 years has rewarded us as we hoped it would, but still challenges our modest management skills. Except for the water heater, that means ignoring the nits or pushing them into the undefined future.

None of the rough edges, the ones we could see, mattered much in February when I first saw the house. It has a backyard—rectangular, uniform, level. Half the area then was a mix of dead grass and weeds. But the other half is set off by a border showing that someone at one time had planted a garden. Then I knew I wanted the place.

People in great cities grow vegetables, fruit, flowers. Affluent and low-income neighborhoods nearly everywhere are home to people who find joy in planting, cultivating, harvesting, often for the benefit of others. City governments encourage community gardens, which by midsummer may explode in colorful bounties of produce. These may be islands of civility, calm, peace, often in wider spaces of chaos. The labor of growing things that are good for people is itself a virtue.

Our idea was to plant a garden. We recalled the success of our Nashville garden, where the soil was black and rich and everything grew, tomatoes, green beans, squash, okra, even melons. When ripe the veggies fell off the plants. Occasionally I worked it, hoeing and pulling weeds, but not much. Sometimes we harvested enough to give away.

I tried again at our Virginia home, but the soil there is poor and filled with chunks of waste concrete buried by construction crews decades ago. The yard is shadowed by huge trees that block sunlight, but don’t ease the jungle-like humidity and heat of the Potomac River basin in summer. I gave up on gardening early.

When I was a kid my parents had a garden in their New Jersey backyard, I recall giant tomato plants. Gardening in the South, though, prompts my imagination of lyrical and mysterious, poignant, even ghostly things. It was to these parts and others that before the War for Independence rich growers pushed poor or unlucky folks west, out of the fertile Virginia and Carolina coastal lowlands to make room for tobacco, rice, and indigo. They were forced to scratch out a living in what then was wilderness. They horse-plowed the tough red clay found everywhere around here to plant subsistence plots. Small, isolated backwoods communities were pocked with poverty and hardship, feuding, and violence.

My idea was a garden, not a farm, to pretty up the yard by planting the brown, bare back half quickly before it was overrun with weeds. My daughter recommended a soil test, they sell cheap ones at Lowe’s. The “pH” looked good for tomatoes, a few other things. I commenced digging holes for three tiny plants, quickly hitting the concrete-like clay. I leaned on the shovel, panting and gasping, then stuck the plants in and sprinkled them with Miracl-Gro. Within days one withered.

I envisioned an Eden-like kaleidoscope of floral color and planted sunflower, marigold and zinnia seeds, nixing the already-started beds. Nearby I stuck in basil, sage, cilantro, and okra seedlings to jump-start a green look. In the plot along the back fence I planted beans, squash, cantaloupe, lettuce. Every day for a week in the warm Carolina sun I hacked away at the clay, scraping long trenches with the pick the former owner had left us, then bending double to spread the seeds and water them. Each morning afterward my back ached and throbbed.

I glanced only briefly at the instructions on the seed packages. I didn’t pay much attention to the intricacies of exactly when in springtime to plant, or how deep or how far apart the seeds should be sown. Still, each morning I looked out impatiently at the yard.

A week or so after I finished, in late April, the TV weather lady warned of an approaching freeze. “Cover those new plants,” she chided. I either didn’t take her seriously or didn’t want to bother. Sometimes, as we know, these TV weather people try to scare you. They call for snow in your town, it doesn’t snow. They predict sunshine, it’s chilly and overcast.

This time she got it right. The mercury sank to 30 F, maybe lower. I looked outside, the leaves of my okra and sage were withered and dead. At Lowe’s Garden Center an indifferent or overworked staff had left the outdoor beds uncovered. Row after row of tiny plants were killed by the cold.

I surveyed my backyard garden, brown and bare, my silent spring. Only the sunflowers were timidly emerging. The dirt stared back at me, the sticks I used to mark my planted rows tilting forlornly where I had inserted them in the soil, marking only the faint imprint of my spade. I watered yet again. Within days the two plots were faintly dotted with green as the long-established weeds, the clover, chickweed, buttercup, and others I didn’t recognize surged to the surface. The stuff I planted, still no-shows.

I tramped back to Lowe’s and bought more seeds: spinach, onion, peppers, more beans, more squash, more marigolds and zinnias. Grinding my teeth, I scraped new rows, planted and watered the seeds, threw the hose down and stomped into the house. I wondered: what’s wrong with my soil? Excess lime? Toxic chemicals? Do I know what I’m doing? I bent over and glared at the surface. Weeds, then nothing.

Since then the days have grown warmer. I’m still watering, but not as often. I’ve quit with the Miracl-Gro, wondering if I overwhelmed the seeds. I’ve learned to relax. I see us still getting our vegetables at the Food Lion all summer then next fall and winter.

Then the other day I saw something. Tiny sprouts had emerged, a fraction of an inch long, about where I had planted the beans. I could see microscopic, bright-green leaves peeking out where I thought I had sown the lettuce. An irregular row of inch-long seedlings was visible where I left the zinnia seeds. I then spied the tiny, bent leaves of a squash plant about where I had planted it.

I stepped back, from ten feet away I saw only the weeds. But Spring was breaking out in my garden. The seeds I bought and planted apparently were alive, after all. Well, some of them. So far, just tiny bits of green, no promise of bushels of ripe vegetables by late summer. We’ll still be waiting in line at the grocery or farmer’s market. But something is out there.                

Chimney Rock

May 3, 2021

We headed north towards the North Carolina state line, starting from the burbs on the usual route up U.S. 25. My daughter Marie drove, the two boys were in their kid seats behind us. The destination was Chimney Rock, maybe an hour southeast of Asheville. She cut onto I-26 just south of the border then abruptly onto U.S. 64 east, which took us quickly into the mountains. Just after passing through Bat Cave, N.C., we craned our necks to look up at the peaks, which seems to rise suddenly from the fast-flowing Broad River.

We pulled into the village just outside the Rock, gaping at the sheer bare granite wall that we learned was formed before the Cretaceous Period, and now looms above the river and nearby Lake Lure. Chimney Rock became a state park in 2006 when the state purchased the 1,000-acre tract from the family that established it and opened it to the public in 1902. You can walk 449 stairs from the parking lot to the observation tower or take a 26-story elevator ride. At the summit the visitor stands before a panorama of the valley and the lake that extends 50 miles or more to the hazy eastern horizon. You then can teeter up a narrow walkway to the top, where the rock tower has separated from the mountain. There’s a railing, some folks venture close to the 2,280-foot drop. I kept my distance, yelling nervously at the boys, who showed no fear.  

The place is one of those phenomena of God’s creation that seizes the visitor’s emotions. Nearly everyone has had the experience somewhere: the humbling recognition that something before us, something we may have stumbled on, not only takes our breath away but also demolishes our presumption that we’re too smart, too world-weary, to be awed.

The Grand Canyon would be another such place, among countless others. As we crossed a stone bridge to Chimney Rock, watching the Broad River rush almost in anger over giant rocks took me back, the way old guys get taken back. I was on a bus from the Bozeman, Mont., airport to the hamlet of Big Sky for some now long-forgotten conference.

From the bus window, as we left the Bozeman suburbs and entered thick evergreen forest, I watched the road curve close to the rushing Gallatin River. The white water slashed in torrents through narrow gorges, announcing that I was in a different world. The dark, wild river spoke of the creation of beauty in that faraway, alien place.

That bus ride now was nearly forty years ago, the early 1980s. I got off the bus and let that unsettling impression form in memory. Soon afterward I reoriented to office life, staff meetings, and tamer bus rides along city streets and interstates at the less-than breakneck pace of the bureaucrat-commuter. But the images remained, along with the certainty that that brush with the unrestrained, indifferent power and loveliness of the natural world can transform human souls.

That lesson, which seemed insightful and complicated when it occurred to me, actually is simple, childlike, crystal-clear for anyone who ventures outdoors and looks around. I felt it elsewhere, on rough hikes in Virginia mountains, on wide beaches, but also on urban streets and sidewalks where men have succeeded in creating beauty and grace.

After escaping the unearthly Chimney Rock tower we settled at a picnic table for our peanut butter sandwiches. Marie noticed an older guy wearing a Tennessee Vols cap seated nearby. We chatted, I mentioned we lived in Nashville years ago, he asked where. “Near Vanderbilt,” I told him. He said he’s from Clarksville, up near Kentucky; he had ten years on me. His wife had passed, he’s now dating a woman from Knoxville, his high-school sweetheart, who also lost her spouse. Unlike us, they walked the 449 steps. I told myself I’ll try that if I can last ten more years.

We walked the winding two-mile Hickory Nut Falls trail to the base of the falls, which tumble 2,580 feet to a rocky pool then cascade on to the river. The observation platform wasn’t enough thrill for the boys, they hustled down over the wet, slippery rocks where the exploding water bathed us in spray. Finally we retrieved them, the younger one ran back down the trail ahead of us. As we walked to the car the Tennessee couple passed us and waved. On to their next four-score years’ adventure, I guessed.

Outside the park we walked down to the river, which curls through the little town and watched the blue-green water crash over giant boulders. As the kids waded in the shallows and threw rocks, I recalled that day I watched the Gallatin in Montana, also lined with deep mountain forest but 2,000 miles away, in a different mountain range, history, and culture, replicated here in this rough and beautiful eastern wilderness.

We thought we should get on the road, but others passed by and chatted a bit, about what a pretty place this is next to New Jersey—why do they pick on Jersey? We let the kids play along the river a bit longer, getting some extra time in that mountain woodland, maybe creating their own memories of a few hours in touch with the serenity of God’s natural world. Maybe when they’re in their thirties or forties, even later, with kids of their own, they’ll think of that day. And maybe remember that grandpa was there.

The Trust

April 26, 2021

Death. We see grim news of it every day. Day after day. But when do you think about your own death? Who wants to? No one I know. But on rare occasions, perhaps in a sink of depression, thoughts of our own mortality come to us. Some experience conversion, epiphany, resolve to change their lives. Others decide to create a living trust.

We did just that. Not because of depression or epiphany; like almost everything I do, I did it, or we did it, because we heard about it from someone else. It may have been our daughter and son-in-law, who set one up. Or it may have been one of those late-night cable TV lawyers with an 888 number, the ones who also will get you out of jail.

A trust is a legal entity that, when the trustees pass on, manages the trust’s assets without tangling with the probate court which, if it steps in, can mean long delays and legal expenses. My mother’s will took months to resolve. My brothers, still in our hometown, did all the work. I didn’t pay much attention, but it amounted to a huge distraction in their lives. Sandy’s mom’s will, which involved the sale of her modest home, turned into a year-long slog, handled bravely by another son-in-law. Almost weekly we got baffling letters from a law firm overseeing her “estate.” That inches-thick sheaf of papers, in a box somewhere in the garage, is getting recycled as soon as I find it.

The concept of a trust was obscure to me. The term summoned thoughts of Gilded Age robber barons, railroads, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, people with money to burn or hide. I guess Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have trusts. Still, the argument about cutting paperwork and avoiding legal bills prompted us to call the attorney we had met with awhile back to see if our Virginia wills conformed to South Carolina law. For that chore, we sat with him at a beautifully polished table in the library of a lovely antebellum home. He looked them over, said they were okay and, to our amazement, didn’t charge us anything.

So a month ago we visited him again. He explained that a trust is more expensive and way more complicated than a will. It essentially becomes the repository of your assets even before you pass from the scene. The lawyer gives you the legalese, you listen, ask him to translate it into elementary-school language, you listen again, then ask again. We squinted, but said we’ll go with it. He took our check. I gritted my teeth as I wrote it, recalling the $1,000 for breaking our apartment lease, another surprise cost.

We came back three weeks later. His polished table was covered with forms and a thick blue three-ring binder that contained our wills, powers of attorney, “certification of trust,” and the trust document, which runs to 50—that’s right, 50 pages. For us? My jaw sagged. We signed away, form after form. I thumbed through the binder—never had I dreamed my demise would rate so much legal lingo. The trust consists of 26 (XXVI) articles, each with multiple sections and subsections, printed on glossy, probably fireproof paper. I paused at Article IV, “Administration of My Trust During My Incapacity.” It lays out how our bills keep getting paid after I’ve become decrepit. In everyday English, things keep humming along.

Then the hard part began. We had homework. The trust only works if the people who hold your assets know it exists. We started with a trip to the nearest branch of Bank of America, where we had obtained the check we needed for the closing on our house. For that errand we were shown into the office of the manager, who doubles as a Merrill Lynch salesman. He welcomed us to South Carolina, then gave his Merrill pitch. “Stocks? Bonds? A BOA credit card? Think of the points you’ll earn!” We stared at our watches until he gave up.

To record the trust as designee on the bank signature cards, we got a repeat performance of the Merrill briefing until our eyes turned glassy. He’s probably got some good deals and advice. But when you’re ears-deep in abstract financial talk, who cares?

Finally we got out of there. I started on the phone calls to Fidelity and our old faithful, USAA, where we have tiny accounts. It would have been easier to cash ‘em in than to fill out the forms, but I have trouble grasping the big financial picture. I finished the forms. I didn’t scan and email them or save them to a web “portal.” I licked stamps and mailed them.

We’re still thrashing about with this. I set the big blue binder aside without reading to the end. The attorney urged us to stick it in a fireproof safe or safe-deposit box, that’s still on the to-do list. But the spunk I felt last month to focus on death, which, bottom line, is what the trust is all about, has ebbed a bit. It can be exhausting. It does keep you jogging, going to the gym, watching the calories and the desserts, as you go through the motions of postponing the inevitable. But I looked over Section 1.01 of the trust: “… for the purpose of transferring property to my Trust or identifying my beneficiary, or pay-on-death designation …”

Every so often I browse through the financial pages checking the stock market (up or down?) wondering what the fine print of the trust will really mean to our beneficiaries when the time comes.  The market is beyond our control. At least we’ve checked the heavyweight legal document box—both of us, as “trustees,” along with the Vanderbilts.

The Smile

April 19, 2021

The radiation oncologist was impressed when I told him about entering (although dropping from) the Black Rock mountain run in North Carolina a few weeks ago (see March 29 post). I said he might enjoy that kind of thing. He laughed. “I don’t think so. I’d rather stay home and drink beer,” he answered. I said that sounded good, too.

He had good news, my new CT scan showed “no evidence of metastatic or recurrent disease.” He pressed on my chest and seemed satisfied. We bumped fists and I was out of there. A couple of days later I was back to see the medical oncologist, who gave me the same upbeat report. “Couldn’t be more pleased,” he said. Me, too. I’ll be back for the next scan in August, then follow-ups with both docs at the Prisma Eastside Cancer Institute. Then the same drill three months later, and so on.

The Eastside Institute here is a graceful two-story place, surrounded by woods and set away nicely from other medical offices. Just off the parking lot is a lovely memorial to those who came to fight the disease, a monument to the sacredness of their lives. The doctors and nurses stepped up for them, staying with the mission through the worst of the pandemic.

They don’t exactly slap your back. With cancer, everything is a maybe, a conditional, an unknown. You can call it remission if you want, but not recovery. My thymic carcinoma, in the recent recurrence that followed loss of a kidney 18 months ago, has a peculiar genetic constitution, not treatable by immunotherapy drugs. “If we see anything on the next scan we’ve got options,” the med-onc added. The genetic analysis he ordered recommended a drug used to treat bladder cancer. “You don’t have bladder cancer,” he added with a smile. I nodded okay.

All cancer patients have their not-great moments, but all I’ve met will give you a smile. I’ve met so many, sentenced to surgery, chemo, radiation, drugs. They all smile, some with a bit of a grimace, but all determined, persevering. Angry, maybe—hard to tell. I met them here and at the chemo and radiation therapy facilities in Woodbridge, Va., waiting to go in or finishing up. Almost always you get the nod and grin, the “hang in there,” as they toss their treatment gowns in the hamper. Nobody complains. Nobody’s got the woebegone look or manner of feeling put upon.

When you’re in that world, you’re researching the problem, constantly. You start with “chemo class” given by a senior staff member to new chemo patients. You sit with others around a table and listen to a lecture on the processes and goals of the treatment, recommended diet, etc. Radiation therapists make sure everyone is well-briefed. All of this is useful, clarifying. Chemo and radiation work together to kill cancer cells as they reproduce. The complication is they also kill healthy cells, producing the sometimes ugly side effects.

The docs now have work-arounds for some side effects. Chemo patients typically get a dose of medicines before the chemo drip kicks in. The medicines put me to sleep for the full five hours. The rad-oncs offer various salves and creams to treat the skin irritation—that is, skin burns. My first rad session, toward the end, was like sitting shirtless at noon in Death Valley. The cream didn’t help.

Staying upbeat was a kind of numbness. Here you are, you didn’t ask for this, but—no wiggle room, get through it. The numbness gets in the way of fear or anger. But in so many others I saw something else: courage.

Eastside Memorial

Two years ago, in Virginia, a young woman had the early morning radiation slot, just ahead of me. When I arrived she was on her way out. She was thin, frail-looking. Breast cancer, she said. There was a quiet smile, every day. She was finishing her month-long stint, but then starting chemo at another facility, showing no fear. You can call it acceptance, going along with the medical conglomerate because, really, there’s no alternative. On her last day she smiled one last time, said “good luck,” and disappeared. It was the same in chemo. Folks took their seats, rolled up their sleeves, started their IVs, and smiled.

Here at Eastside, rad patients flowed in steadily, the schedule was tight. Folks may have been frightened, but they always chatted. I saw old guys like me, elderly ladies, middle-aged people, young, good-looking guys and girls. I saw a woman in a wheelchair, pushed by her daughter, not smiling. She has dementia, the daughter said. She smiled as if for her mom. I saw a guy built like a football player. He grinned and talked football.

They—we—may have picked it up to some degree from the staff. They tried to make us comfortable. But the patients all seemed to have something that led them to smile at and kid with each other. For some it’s a kind of mystery, the sense that I’m here at the brink, I didn’t chose this, but there’s no turning back. Nothing to do but fight. So get on with it. For others, it acknowledges the nearness of God in their lives.

We looked around at each other, knowing what we’re all going through, but that we’re not alone. Cancer is everywhere in America, a scourge of children, teens, young adults, and oldsters. Despite the millions spent on research annually by the best medical institutions in the world, cancer still baffles the professionals.  They achieve miracles, except when they don’t. My younger brother went to Sloan-Kettering for a consult. Months later he was gone. U.S. cancer deaths have declined in recent years. Yet in 2020 some 1,600 people died of cancer every day in the United States.

I walked out of the rad-onc’s office and waved at Daisy, the admin assistant. She smiled her own dynamite smile. “I’ve got you coming back on August 10, right after the scan. Take care!”

Those waiting room smiles say something: I know what you’re dealing with when you walk into that lead-lined treatment chamber and lie down on the slab under that giant, scary machine. I know what you’re thinking when you feel that warm rush of drugs flow into your body. We’re doing this with you. So we whisper, “Hang in there.” And keep smiling.    

Grass

April 12, 2021

The sun now rises high and warm nearly everywhere, making the flowers and plants explode from the soil to paint the land with the brilliance of the season. As I’m sure some poet has said, Spring breathes life into the living. Walking through parks, any parks, or driving through towns and cities, any town or city, and inhaling the delicate aromas of Spring lightens the heart of every human person. The sensations may seem superficial or trivial in the face of deeper concerns, they may be short-lived, but they are real and undeniable.

What also is undeniable is the work about it. Spring in its loveliness is a signal to the suburbanites, or many of them, to head to Home Depot and Lowe’s and stand in line to buy new tools, seed, nursery-raised plants, and fertilizer, and deploy for the lawn wars. A lush spread of grass outside your front door is why you moved to the burbs, isn’t it?

I resigned from most lawn duty a couple of years ago. Other than mowing my modest front-yard plot to keep the neighbors happy, I gave up caring what it looked like. For years earlier I laid down new seed in the spring and straw on top of the seed to keep it from washing away, then watched the crabgrass and other stuff devour it by mid-July.

You can avoid that by hiring a lawn-care company to tend your patch of green, meaning seed, fertilize, mow, and snip it. Our Virginia neighbor across the street does just that. Once a week for half the year, around 8 AM, a team of lawn manicurists arrives in a pickup truck, wheel out their giant sit-down mowers, and inside of 15 minutes blast neat new swaths in her lawn. Then they head to the next customer. It’s a volume business, after all. We understood. I never asked her what it cost, whatever it was, it was more than I wanted to pay. Her lawn was beautiful. Ours resembled a World War I battlefield.

Every man who slaves away at his lawn knows what those who don’t also know: lawn care can be addictive, like sugar or caffeine or worse things. Nightmares are made of the sums of money otherwise sane adults allocate to seed, “pre-emergent” herbicides, lime, and the various seasonal strains of fertilizer. Isn’t it necessary, the homeowner asks himself, to use all of them? In their season? Scott, Vigoro, Pennington, and other corporate giants rule their own aisles of the hardware stores. That’s the software, then there’s hardware: the spreaders, mowers, sprinklers (or in-ground sprinkler systems), and wheelbarrels; the power tools—blowers, vacuums, clippers, trimmers; and the hand tools: grass rakes, thatch rakes, leaf rakes, hoses, edgers, weeders, hoes, spades, shovels, pitchforks.

I owned all those things.

A homeowner’s desire to keep his place presentable exerts powerful pressure to acquire a lawn-care warehouse. The thick green lawn is a component of everything else. You have to spend money, after all, on painting, powerwashing, repairing brick facings, vinyl siding, and shutters, cleaning windows and replacing broken ones, cleaning gutters, and so on, with the understandable goal of not letting your house look run down or abandoned. Because the grass or other vegetation that fills the space between the front door and the sidewalk is alive, it requires constant attention. The lawn-care compulsion grows (heh-heh) from that. Hence the lawnmower, for starters. Then the rest.

My recovery started with failure. The soil on our property was naturally poor. Without commercial fertilizer and hours of watering—positioning a sprinkler or spraying with a hose—the expensive grass seed I planted grew feebly, then died. Eventually I decided the weeds that replaced it were green enough. Mowing gave us a minimalist level of suburban acceptability. That was the front. The backyard I surrendered completely. Because it was a steep hill and not visible from the street, when I got sick I quit even occasionally trimming it and handed it over to the weeds. Here, nature was kind. The chickweed, etc., grew sparsely and slowly, giving us the gentle, calming look of a meadow or pasture.

I braced myself for lawn care here, at the new place. We now face a new enemy, a Homeowners Association (HOA) which, in its rulebook, demands lawn accountability. The seller, Miss Jean, bequeathed us a rake, a hoe, a couple of spades. But since we gave away our entire lawn-care arsenal, including the mower, we’re unarmed.

Then I noticed something. All the lawns in the neighborhood look brown and neglected. Unlike our Virginia neighbors, nobody here, even in mid-April, was frantically fertilizing, seeding, aerating, trimming. The thick, heat-resistant zoysia that predominates in local lawns has not yet stirred to green. Its tough, wirelike clumps seem to limit weed growth to dandelions, which dapple our front lawn with their yellow flowers and fluffy seed pods. Once established, they never go away short of a massive herbicide assault.

Lowe’s is teeming with anxious customers who know the territory better than me.  But I called off shopping for lawn tools.

When I moved from Jersey to Nashville in 1975, I took some time getting used to certain Southern peculiarities, even after marrying into a Southern family. The “Lost Cause” thing never worked for me, although it’s still alive and well in Tennessee and in South Carolina. But the slower, more genteel pace hereabouts is okay for us now, as we figure out things more complicated than lawn care. But lawn care will still matter. Ask the HOA.