Monday, April 08, 2013

Time for another commitment...

I turned 66 recently -- full social security eligibility -- and am contemplating retirement. This is very hard on me. Part of me abhors the idea of retirement. I love teaching. I love my students. I am thrilled to have captive audience for my silly shenanigans and I relish those "aha!" moments that, after 33 years teaching preteens, I can pretty well predict.

Anyway, I made a commitment in 1971 to Sheila Shaw. I am far from a perfect husband, but I have managed to keep the basics of that commitment and I love her with everything I have. That commitment resulted in promises to Brannon Shaw in 1983 and Lillian Shaw in 1988. My mistakes have been legion in the parenting department, but neither of the girls can doubt my love.

After teaching, with great enjoyment but without a permanent commitment, for 19 years, then taking 11 years off for business efforts, I reentered education, this time, on purpose, in 1999. And, this time,  I made a conscious commitment. Part of that was a commitment to love my students and to find joy in teaching them. I occasionally find myself nose to nose with some little 10-year-old miscreant, but even then I think they know I love them.

Now I face old age. Today my digital buddy, the Questing Parson, gave his goals for old age. I think I can endorse them. I too am determined to keep growing as I "grow old". Time for another commitment.

"I'm Old" by the Questing Parson

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Grandpaw Wilkerson & Beulah

Grandpaw Wilkerson & Beulah

(A retelling of Donald Davis's Story, "Rainy Weather")

Grandpaw Wilkerson KNEW his dogs. 

His favorite, late in life, when I knew  him, was Beulah. The Westminster Kennel Club wouldn’t have recognized her lineage, but Grandpaw knew her. She was a descendant of a long line of hounds he’d raised since his boyhood days. He could trace her forebears by name through ten generations of begats. He swore her heart pumped the best hound blood in Alabama. It’d be hard to figure who loved fox hunting better, Tom or Beulah. 

When the big storm of '59 tried to blow Calhoun County Alabama off the map, Daddy and I hurried over to Nances Creek -- just south of what my family still calls Cross Plains, but folks now generally know as Piedmont -- to help Grandpa with the clean-up.

That tornado had barreled through missing the farmhouse, and the church, but it took out the big barn.

Grandpaw had built that barn right after he and Maw Wilkerson got married a good sixty years earlier. The center section was unfloored but both sides had floors of wide rough-sawn boards. The two long floors that had held the tack rooms, and corn crib, and such was all that was left. Folks from the church had already cleared a lot of the mess up, so Daddy and I got after salvaging those big yellow pine boards.

We’d only pulled up and stacked a couple of ‘em when we noticed in the dirt under the boards some old fox tracks that must have been there when the boards had been nailed down sixty years before. Well, about the time we were pulling up the last board on that side, along came Grandpaw with a jug of sweet tea and with Beulah on a leash.

“Paw, come look at this!” Daddy hollered “Fox tracks!”

“Yep, look at that. That fox must’ve trotted right across here the night before we nailed that floor down! Lordy! look at Beulah! I b’lieve that ol’ dog can still smell the critter!” 

Sure enough, Beulah was straining at her leash with her nose in the dirt, a low growl bubbling from her jowls.

With a smile in his eyes, Grandpaw unhitched that leash from the hand-tooled leather collar he'd made her. You should of seen that dog go! Lickety-split down the length of that barn, up and over the sill at the far end,  across the barn lot, sliding under the old slat fence, and into the next pasture. 

There she started zigzagging to beat the band.

“What in the world’s she doin’," I hollered as we followed after her, about as fast as you could expect in the company of an 89 year-old .

“We didn’t clear that field till after the barn was built”, Grandpaw huffed, “She must be dodging all the trees that USED to be there!”

Running straight again through the next field, her trail song washed over the valley like sunlight in the morning. She headed smackdab toward the pond. “Lordy, Grandpaw, y’all  just built that pond a couple of years ago. What’s she gonna do now?!”

Well, I’ll tell you what she did: she plunged nose first into and under that pond, and started clawing her way across the bottom. That trail song was snuffed out briefly, of course, but then air began bubbling to the surface and releasing bits of barks. She ploughed out the other side paused a second or two to shake good and headed up and across the ridge, and by the time we got around the pond and up the rise we’d lost her in the blackberry brambles. Grandpaw reckoned we might as well  head back to the house. 

We didn’t hear from Beulah the next day, or the next. And it was Saturday and Daddy and I had to head back to Ellijay so he could preach Sunday morning.

Weeks went by, we kept going back and forth to clean up at Grandpa’s a day or two every week and Beulah never came back. We thought the ol’ girl was gone for good and we could tell Grandpaw was depressed even though he’d probably never heard that word.

Then the phone rang and it was the New Orleans Police Department. A dog with Grandpaw’s phone number on its tag had broken into the Salvation Army Thrift Store in the French Quarter and “treed” a fifty-year-old, ten-dollar fox-fur coat hanging in the show window. For a hundred dollar fee the dog could be shipped to Anniston on the Southern Crescent. Grandpaw thought about that about ten seconds, then with mischief in his eyes, said he reckoned Maw would like that coat. 

“I’ll wire you twenty bucks to buy the coat and cover shipping costs. Just let old Beulah go. She’ll find a good home.”  And that policeman agreed!

Sure enough, about a week later, here came the mail Jeep crossing the Nance’s Creek bridge toward the farm. Grandpaw grinned wide and called Maw out to get her new coat from the mailman while he grabbed his cane and walked on down the road. By the time he got to the bridge he could already hear that beautiful trail song of his best friend.

And while Maw was greeting the mailman, Beulah was trotting across the bridge nose to the ground, home at last, and still trailing that fox toward the outstreched arms of Thomas Wesley Wilkerson, who, I think I mentioned, KNEW his dogs. 

Oh, by the way,  any similarity between this absolutely true story and a true story called “Rainy Weather” that Donald Davis tells, is purely coincidental. Why, if you can’t trust me on that, what storyteller could you trust? 


Donald Davis includes "Rainy Weather" in his book Barking at a Fox-Fur Coat. He says the story grew out of one of his Uncle Frank's anecdotes. I developed my version of Donald's story recently when I remembered the picture (above) of my Great Great Grandfather Thomas Wesley Wilkerson with his hound. Is that a great picture or what? At the time I wrote my version I thought Donald's was a retelling of a traditional tale, like some others of his tales are. I now understand that this story is more of an original work than I thought. I've had a lot of fun telling it and fitting it to my family and a setting more familiar to me, but I know now that Donald Davis deserves full credit for the basic story. 

We have many Donald Davis CDs, tapes, an LP, a VHS tape, two DVDs, and several books. My children grew up on Donald Davis stories, and Sheila and I hear him in person often, including every October at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough TN, including his pre-festival Wednesday night concert, at the Pike Piddler Festival in Troy AL, at the Azalea Festival in LaGrange GA, and at the Peach State Festival in Atlanta. I have attended one of his short workshops and dream of attending his week-long workshop one of these days. And I use his children's storytelling program, Make It Tell It Write, regularly.

If you haven't read or heard Donald's stories you need to check them out.