Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: November, 2014

Tales My Father Told Me: Trotline Treachery

My father’s father, Chester Owens, was born in the late 1800s. Because he died when I was a small boy it is difficult to separate my memories of him from the stories I’ve been told. Grandaddy Owens was an electrician who worked in underground coal mines of Alabama, he was a storekeeper, a farmer, a generous man, small in stature, large in his impact, and a Sunday School Teacher. My father says many considered him the only man whose class warranted their full attention. There’s a church named after him, Owens Chapel, near Empire, Alabama, named such because, along with my grandmother, he gifted the land on which it sits. And yet this gift was for the start of a new congregation, not his own.

My father tells me his Dad once overheard my paternal grandfather, Lattus Bishop, also a miner, unaware of my Granddad’s presence nearby in the dark of the mine, describe him as a “pretty nice fellow for a red head.” This was lavish praise, I suppose, for men hardened by the dark dangers of working hundreds of feet below ground in the early 1900s. But nice and generous should not be confused with afraid to stand up for what was rightly his, according to one tale my father told me.

While bass fishing and “noodling” (catching large catfish with one’s bare hands buy thrusting ones hand into the mouth of what must no doubt be a shock for the catfish) are done for sport today, in my Grandfather’s time, fishing was for food and the dinner table. They ran “trot” lines along the river, from which are suspended baited hooks. They are left in the water until checked a day or so later when someone returns to inspect them. And trotlines and their bounty belong to the man who set them. No one else.

After several trips back to check his lines without any catch, my Grandfather began to suspect someone was stealing from his lines. His solution was to ease onto the banks and conceal himself, along with my father, in the brush just above the spot where he’d set his line, along with a pump action shotgun. As dusk settled in on the water a small boat moved quietly up the river. Soon enough several men guided a small boat against the bank and stooped to pull my grandfathers trotline from the water. Their quiet efforts were abruptly interrupted by the distinct sound of pumping a shell into the chamber of the weapon. Though I’m unsure, I suppose these men needed a fresh change of undergarments that evening.

This sound alone was enough to dissuade the men from continuing with their plans, as I recall my father telling me. Each man set about grabbing paddles and rowing with sufficient energy as to get their small boat “on plane,” meaning the bow of the boat was rising out of the water from its growing speed. I imagine them fumbling about, trying to stay low in the boat lest they hear the unwelcome blast of the shotgun. But that sound never came. The mere threat of it probably turned men of evil spirit into righteous believers begging the Good Lord to just let them live and promising they would never do such a deed again if He would spare them. And He and my grandfather did just that.

I have no suspicion my Granddad would ever have shot at these men. Though he might have peppered the water nearby if they’d continued their pursuit. He was defending what was rightly his own. And after all, “he was pretty nice fellow for a red head.”

Tales My Father Told Me: Jack the Jumping Mule

Anyone having the privilege of growing up in, or spending much time, in the rural south, will no doubt have many tales to tell, which will often include interaction but humans and animals. Those tales will include bird dogs with names like “Jocko” or “Number Seven.” There will be tales of cows that have wandered out because someone failed to close the gate to the pasture. Sometimes the stories will include references to stray cats, (which are often referenced as “damn cats,” chickens, even pigs will make the list. But this is a tale, told by my father, of a mule.

For those of you unfamiliar with the origin of the noble mule, know that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. One wonders who first thought this might be a good idea and how much commotion must have been made the first time a mare in estrus was coaxed into the presence of an eager donkey. But that is another story.

Mules are bred for the surefootedness, ability to bear large loads and are tireless, if sometimes obstinate, animals. They are used to haul logs, pull plows, and as pack animals. Even today mules can go where machines cannot. While growing up, Dad’s family owned one such animal that, for some reason, was named “Jack.” It’s a sturdy name for a sturdy animal and Jack served our family well, I’m told. Yet he had a penchant for wanting to be on the other side of whatever fence he stood beside.

Jack, according to my father, had no reason to look for holes in the fence lines or an open gate. He would simply jump the fence as he pleased and wander about until someone grabbed a halter and returned him to the pasture or put him in his stall in the barn. But soon my grandfather, Chester, a quiet, auburn haired man of deep faith, grew weary of Jack’s behavior and set about finding a means to confine Jack more effectively. My grandfather was an electrician, farmer, storekeeper who knew how to do just about everything. It is a trait that he passed on in the gene pool of my father and uncles, but one that must be recessive and has bypassed me.

Dad tells me of “hobbling” Jack with a length of rope tide between his foreleg and the opposite hind leg. It wouldn’t injure Jack and would keep him from jumping the fence. But when an intelligent, obstinate creature, decides he wants out of the fence, he will find a way. Dad says, “after several days or working it out Jack found a way. But we never saw him do it. He was just out of the fence again.”

In disbelief, Dad tells of looking out one day to find Jack reared up on his hind legs, balancing like a small dog begging for a treat, then leaping over the fence from this two legged stance. He stuck the landing too and, if mules could talk, I suspect he was mumbling, “Nobody puts Jack in the fence,” a la Patrick Swayze’s reference to “Baby” in the film, Dirty Dancing.

I’m not sure of the rest of the tale. I suspect Jack lived a long life, well cared for by the people who depended on his loyal service to the family. I also suspect the hobbling rope was removed and Jack was allowed to continue making his own decisions about when he would remain inside the fence.  I suppose I shall have to check in with my Father about those details. And I’ve chosen to believe that Jack is somewhere in Mule Heaven jumping fences as he pleases. After all, “Nobody puts Jack in the fence.”

Tales My Father Told Me

I come from a tradition of great storytellers, from men with the “gift of gab.” To be a man in my family is to be responsible for keeping, and sometimes embellishing I’m sure, our family’s history. My father and his two brothers may not have originated this family tradition, but they certainly perfected it. These tales, rich with laughter, joy, and sometimes, pain, help me know who I am and my place in this world. My father is now 81, sharp as ever, and he still tells me tales of his life and my heritage.

My father is the youngest of three brothers. He is too old to climb ladders, cuts his grass, or run a chain saw. He does it anyway and with an attention to details I’ve never had. His character was formed in a rural Alabama family full of tales of life near the water where family outings included a picnic basket, fishing, and swimming. But as the youngest child Dad tells how he had to wait to enjoy many of the privileges his brothers had.

“On trips to the river Mom was always concerned I’d end up in the water before I could really swim,” he told me. There were no life preservers or water wings back then, at least they weren’t available to the Owens Clan I suppose. But Dad tells me my Grandmother was adept at working out unique safety solutions to protect her baby boy.

“She would take a rope and tie one end around my waist, then tie the other end to a tree so I couldn’t wander off into the water. It had just enough length to get me to the water’s edge and no further,” he continued. “Then she could set about getting lunch ready without fear of me drowning.”

For some reason this image of my father, tied to tree, probably straining to get every inch out of the rope has always made me laugh. I can see him chasing his brothers around the tree, the rope slowly shortening, until he is wrapped around it like a puppy one a leash. I can see my Grandmother smiling and shooing Luke and Lon back into the water as she patiently unwinds my Dad from the tree. And I can see Luke and Lon, young lean farm boys, laughing, plotting their next attempt to tangle my Dad around the tree the next time. I can see my Grandmother putting out fried chicken and potato salad for lunch. Not all these details are in my Father’s version of the story, but embellishment and imagination capture the spirit of the tales my father tells me, if not all the substance.

Dad has told me many other tales, like those of Jack the jumping mule, of a letter received from Luke while he was in the Army, of a tornado that swept through Walker County and why so many people buried in the New Canon Baptist Church cemetery have the same date of death. He has told me tales of a flat tire on a winding road in the Kentucky coal country and of how a ringing bell at the mine would cause an entire community to drop what they were doing and come check on the fate of the men and boys they love. They are too many to count and perhaps I will write more of them here. I will write them in homage to my Dad, to Luke, and to Lon. I will write them because I understand it is my responsibility to keep our history, share with my children and others in the family so we all know from where we came. And if necessary, I will embellish them a bit, not to deceive, but to enrich them just as I know Dad, Luke and Lon would want me to.

The People You Meet: Esso the Tailor

When a 6’6’ man who weighs about 240 lbs, depending on how close for far away Thanksgiving and Christmas are, walks into a tailor shop the look on the staff there is always the same. It’s as if they are saying, “of all the tailor shops in all the world, he had to walk in this one.” Suffice it to say they wish I were either shorter or fatter because matching a coat and pants for me is an ordeal for even the best of tailors.   But today was different. Today, I met Esso.

He greeted me with a broad smile and enthusiasm that led me to believe he was either a master tailor or had no clue what he was in for. He spoke perfect English in an African accent as he quickly began pinning my jacket at the waist, sorting out just how much fabric he was going to need to remove.

“Please turn around,” Esso asked gently. He frowned and quietly mumbled “No, no, no.” He wasn’t frustrated. He simply knew he needed to make a change to his work.

“Where are you from, Esso?”

“West Africa, sir.”

“Did you grow up speaking English?”

“Oh no, sir, French. “

Esso went on to tell me of his first attempts to speak to an attractive young lady when he arrived her four years ago. He learned he had pretty much been saying the opposite of what he wanted to say. He had come to this country at age 24 speaking no English, which obviously made courtship a challenge.

“You should simply speak French to these ladies, Esso. Regardless of what you say, everything sounds romantic in French,” I suggested

“Yes sir,” he grinned. “I have learned that very well.”

In our conversation I asked Esso about his family, when he’d last been home, and a few more things. He was generous with what he shared. When I asked if he made his way back home frequently, his eyes briefly lost their bright energy.

“Only once every few years. “ But he lit up again as he told me he’d just visited for 40 days this past spring. He’d flown from Huntsville to Atlanta to Paris to West Africa. In Paris he was still six hours away from home.

“My country is a wonderful place. Everyone is friendly. There is no stress. But it is very difficult to make money. When I go back I try to help people, give them money to get a trade or start a business. They do not know what to say. But it is what I want to do. I want to go back someday and start a business. I come from a very poor family and making a living is hard. But I love my home. I want to help people.”

Esso went on to share a few more things. He has a brother and sister here. His father is here also. Esso speaks seven different dialects of his native language. I suspect he smiles in each of them. He became a tailor before he moved to the United States. And while we spoke he told me he has his own shop outside of the large clothing store in which I met him.

So why write about meeting Esso? I suppose because of the same reason I write about anything else. I write about things that affect me. Things that make me think, smile, and sometimes, frown. I recently told a friend I write to help process life. And in this life, taking the time to get to know people like Esso, their struggles, their victories, and their dreams, makes me smile. Had I been in a hurry, I would have simply wanted my clothing marked and altered. And I would have missed the real joy of getting to know Esso.

It’s Saturday night. Esso is 29. I suspect he is somewhere speaking French to an attractive young lady, smiling. Her life will be the richer for meeting him too, I hope. And I will take my clothes to Esso’s private shop from now on. Whatever it cost I will get far more in return from Esso than simply well fitting clothes.

Mizz Bishop’s Kitchen


For most of us the kitchen is the heart of the home we grew up in. Somehow it is the place where everyone gathers, eschewing the comfort of a good chair, at least for a while, in favor of the laughter and warmth of family. Recently my Mother bequeathed me two iron skillets owned by her Mother stirring memories of my Grandmother’s kitchen. In those memories I could smell and taste the foods found there as well as the security of her love kindness of her smile, this woman known to so many as simply, Mizz Bishop.

Family entered Mizz Bishop’s house, come to think of it everyone did, through the back of the house through the utility room. Only salesmen, strangers and census takers, or maybe a Preacher, came to the front door. You passed a washer and dryer, washbasin, and an enormous freezer to enter the kitchen. The freezer always had fresh frozen peaches, strawberries, and a variety of vegetables my Grandmother had “put up.” There were cuts of beef, chicken, and pork waiting to become part of a meal. And oh yes, let’s not forget the thick slabs of “fatback,” an essential part of seasoning a Southern meal.

Most of the time my Grandmother’s first words to newly arrived family and friends included “Ya’ll hungry?” I can hear her Southern drawl even now. She would invite us into the kitchen to sit at the table while she started pulling out leftover pork chops, chicken, or steak, or fish. All of it cooked in the skillet, most of it breaded, I know own. It handled the duty of cooking biscuits, cornbread, bacon, eggs, and who knows what else. Scrambled eggs in her kitchen, in that skillet, were always cooked in bacon or sausage grease and resulted in something that could bring tears to your eyes.

Mizz Bishop’s kitchen always had something sweet to eat as well. Sometimes it was a homemade coconut cake or a pound cake. Sometimes it was a “store bought” Honey Bun, Chips Ahoy, or the Krispy Kreme Donuts she loved so much. In the rare event none of those were available there were always homemade strawberry or fig preserves to ladle onto a biscuit, piece of cornbread, or even a piece of toast. No one ever left hungry.

Tonight, I cooked my first pan of cornbread in Mizz Bishop’s skillet. I used the big one. It is well seasoned and heavy from both the iron from which it is made as well as more than fifty years of memories. This large skillet and its smaller brother are somehow sacred relics of my youth. And I treated them with the care of a holy moment. They call me to wonder how times she stooped to place them into the oven, removing them, to fill both the belly and the soul of the people she loved. And make me wonder how many times she asked, “Ya’ll hungry?”

Frogs in a Pot: Election Eve 2014

On the eve of Election Day 2014 I find myself thinking (I know. There he goes again.) about the implications of what will happen tomorrow. Relax; his is not the mad raving of a political ideologue that wants his side to “win.” Sure I have opinions, preferences, but this is more about than winning. It is about reframing the way we debate things in our Nation. It is more about governing and leading than winning.

Our Constitution is based on the principle of finding balance and protection of the rights the minority. It is a remarkable work of imperfect people, some of whom did things we find reprehensible in our time, creating a means of governance that didn’t allow the oppression of people who see things differently than they did. Whigs, Tories, Republicans, Democrats, Vegans, Hunters, Christian, Atheists, Young, Old, Black, White, Short and dare I say, Tall People, have long taken the view of us against them as Fox News, MSNBC, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal all seem to thrive on pitting us against one another. Rhetoric has taken the place of ideas. Running against someone has become all the rage. And we, like frogs in a pot, don’t realize the pot is getting warmer.

Maybe it’s time for our candidates and elected officials to recognize the value of the adage, “God gave you two ears and one mouth. That’s because he wants you to listen twice as much as you speak.” Maybe it’s time to elect people with the courage to listen rather than those who promote rancor. People of good will can disagree. But sewing seeds of discord, labeling others with harsh attacks, talking about those Republican, those Democrats, Liberals or Democrats, isn’t governing. This is what children do when they can’t get along together. They call one another names. They blame one another.

We need elected officials to fix problems, not blame. We need people who will civilly debate ideas. We need Statesman who can find a way to find a way past the Red State/Blue State notion that has become shorthand for who is ticked off at whom. (Please correct my grammar. I never could get that who/whom thing right.) We have allowed ourselves to become a harsh nation, unkind to those who have a different view. Perhaps it is time for a little grace and humility.

As I review these words, I find myself laughing at myself. There was a day when I thought I knew everything. But having the courage to admit I don’t has been redemptive. I don’t get riled up as much. I don’t even need to have cable to watch the election results tomorrow. Sure. I will check the Internet to see who finds out. But not sitting on the throne of judgment about these matters while still caring deeply about ideas, this nation, and our future, are still deep in my soul.

By the way, Vote for Tall People. They are the best!

Who’s with me?