"I really have to apologize," said the well dressed blond as we walked up to my porch brandishing an index card.
I'll get back to that. I live in a wonderful and interesting place. Yesterday morning I got up and went to breakfast with the “kids,” age 61 and 75. Betsy Ross (not quite her real name, but it fits) is a retired school teacher who seems to know everyone in town along with their life stories and likes almost all of them (couple of creepy men – no). She is retired for years now, but has started substituting again and can’t get enough of it. She doesn’t really need the money but enjoys interacting with the kids. I have to say, high school kids would probably drive me crazy and I’d be out on the step pretty quick, but she loves it and knows how to be tough enough when she needs to be.
She is one of the few people I know who is genuinely more interested in other people’s opinions than her own, and I admire her for it. She is a reader and sometimes when I arrive, she is sitting with her husband is at a table with her nose in a history or biography while he does a crossword puzzle. Almost everyone I have introduced to her comments on how ladylike she is. She is a natural hostess, even when out, and gets me coffee when she frequently gets up to get her husband his, and I can’t say I mind. She might have among the most perfect set of teeth ever known to humans and is the mother of one of the most beautiful women I have ever met (but, if my insignificant other is reading this – not that I noticed). Born in West Virginia, she has heard all the jokes about incest and road kill.
Her husband, “Scabby” (a childhood nickname he made the mistake of telling me about), is a retired air traffic controller and supervisor, who was on the right side of the table when Reagan fired the strikers in 1981. He has now been retired longer than he worked. We have a schtick that we developed pretty soon after we met between 2 and 3 years ago. Scabby and I insult each other in every way we can. I frequently predict his imminent death (which would seem harsh if you didn’t know him), psychoanalyze his dreams in the most offensive ways I can think up, and basically call him a welfare queen for living off his federal employee pension. He calls me fat, mocks me for my finances (or lack thereof) and mimics my New Yawk accent (“sore” for “saw,” “warter” for “water,” and so on). Betsy pretty much just laughs at everything we say, and Scabby complains that she is encouraging me.
Scabby and I are well aware that sometimes we are being listened to by neighboring tables, and admittedly, we put on the dog even more then. But, it hasn’t gotten old yet. Scabby has a story about everything, though most are about his childhood in a small Pennsylvania “main street” type town where boys got guns when they were young, his time in the service in Japan, and his life in the FAA. I have heard these stories so many times I can tell them myself, but at least he doesn’t change them like some people do when they repeat them. I often claim they never really happened and he made them up, but he loves them too much for that to be true. Sometimes he will start, stop to say that he knows we’ve heard it before and that he is telling it for himself and then go on. He feels he has a book in him and maybe he does. He can’t spell so well though, so he’ll need a lot of help.
Sometimes Yankee Bill will sit down with us. I don’t know his real name for sure, though I’m guessing it is Bill. They call him “Yankee” because he is originally from Connecticut. He is 64 years old and often rides his bicycle several miles to Northstar, the incredible roadside “diner” (they wouldn’t call it that) I go to 3 to 4 times a week. Other times he rides his motorcycle, and with his German style black round motorcycle helmet, looks like someone who could have been an extra in Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose. He has a booming voice you can often hear from everywhere in the restaurant and he's not even raising it. Often he sits down with the three of us to talk politics. Like Betsy, he seems more interested in what I have to say and asks question after question. It is very different than where I am from.
The owner of the establishment is a woman who appears to me to be in her 50s, and who I have never seen in a bad mood or frazzled, although she gets up at 3:30 in the morning to come to work and they close after dinner (not sure if she is still there then, though) and are continuously packed – it might be the only truly successful business in town. She is no shrinking violet though and mixes it up with the regulars, and has even had to tell a few to get lost and don’t come back when they needed it. She charges about 1/3 the price IHOP does and you usually get much more food. I am told she started there as a waitress, was uncommonly shy and then finally bought the place. She's not shy anymore.
This is the south and it is a small town of about 1300 people, but with 14 churches I've personally counted, and I don't think I got them all. On some days, even I, a Yankee myself with unaccountably bad facial recognition skills, recognize most of the people there, even if just to nod at. It is one of those places where people wave to you as they drive by, and here in the morning, they get up to get their own coffee and walk around to pour for everyone else. I don't do that on account of my own weird shyness, but I am offered by everyone else just the same. When we are done, we usually grab our plates and all our garbage and stack it or put it in the garbage. Why not? I am regularly charged $1.50 to $3.00 for an enormous breakfast. The five dollars I leave doesn't seem sufficient.
Later, after lunch, I spent about 4 hours on the river among rapids, mountains, swallows, hawks, damsel-flies and a species of water fowl I could not identify. It has a long tweezer like beak, a brown chest with a white line running down the center, bluish wings, long yellowish velociraptor like legs and a silvery patch on its back. When it was looking for little fish on the shore line it walked along like Groucho Marx (those under 30 just google “groucho”) and partially extended its pseudo-stumpy neck until into an s-shape until it was about 8 inches long. Then, like a darting mongoose targeting a cobra or the lightning fast tongue of a frog snatching a fly, the neck uncoiled and it walked away with a small prey in its beak. It seemed wary, but curiously unafraid of me, unlike most birds which won’t come near me. I hadn't expected to get that close. When I approach the much larger great blue herons that occasionally make the river their home, they fly away like pterodactyls long before I draw near.
When I finished kayaking, I started to walk the 3 miles back to town in order to get my car so I could put my kayak on it. As always, I stuck out my thumb and one of the first vehicles, a truck, stopped and an older fellow gave me a lift to town. And also as usual, in the five minutes together in the car, we swapped part of our life stories. Like me, he is from New York, growing up in the 50s and 60s, but has lived here for over 40 years. He saved me an hour’s walk by his simple act of kindness. I never stop to worry about the horrible hitchhiker stories you can’t avoid hearing and I doubt he does either. I only think of it now as I write this.
Sitting now on my porch a few hours later, I watch a number of other birds go through their daily routines. These include a bobwhite (I think), which is a rather ordinary looking bird when sitting on a perch, but becomes spectacular with bi-lateral white splashes when it takes wing. Yellow bellied finches or blue and red ones I can’t identify, but I think are in the same family, suddenly burst out of bushes. A flock of doves sits on the same wire every day together between the house across the street and a huge Rockefeller Center worthy evergreen tree. They are only occasionally disturbed when a hawk flies by and they scatter in an explosion of air buffeting feathers. A brilliant cardinal I sometimes think of as Will Scarlett because of the striking contrast when he flits across the greenery, makes an appearance. Obviously, I can't recognize faces, but the regular appearances of these birds day after day doing the same things over and over, tells me I know them. Sometime in the early evening a faun will gallivant across the lawn in front of me; but two nights ago a doe and two fauns galloped from the direction of river, through my yard and then dashed across the street onto the big lawn to disappear up into the woods. Really, it's just great.
A little while ago a white 4x4 truck pulled up in front of my house onto the edge of grass in front of the property here. J, my landlord’s daughter, steps out of the truck all dolled up in a bone white church outfit with a pretty intense white lace needle work, and walks up to me saying “I really have to apologize.” I’ve noticed in life when anyone tells me something like that I almost never know what they have to apologize about. Of course, the people who I think should apologize rarely do.
J is a really interesting, maybe remarkable person. She is a country girl who once brought me a copperhead snake she killed with a shovel while gardening, and while we were talking about it she said “Excuse me, I have a tick,” reached up behind her shirt and picked one off the middle of her back, crushed it between her fingers and flicked it away. Girls from Long Island can’t do that. There would be a lot of shrieking. Guys from Long Island can’t either (as Bear, who picked up a couple of ticks visiting here, will attest). Yet, despite what might seem quintessential “country” in that behavior to a yankee like myself, she is every bit a lady, polite, fun and talkative, able to bake an exquisite looking wedding cake or make a pizza, create a lifelike plastereagle float with a fifteen foot wingspan for a parade, decorate a gym for a prom and do a lot of other artistic things seemingly effortlessly. Her dad tells me she is a dead shot with a pistol or a rifle although I haven’t seen it myself. She doesn’t seem to realize how talented she is though and I’ve never heard her brag. More the opposite. Her bright blue eyes that she gets from her dad, her pearly white teeth and lack of wrinkles (not to hear her tell it) make her passable for 10 or more years younger than she is.
Two nights ago she had come by to pick up one of her father’s ladders and we ended up talking on opposite sides of her truck bed for a few hours about religious beliefs. She is a devout Christian, very involved with her church, and I am an atheist who for a multitude of good reasons decided to settle in the Bible Belt. But, it was fun discussing our different views, even stimulating. I have never really had an argument with a religious person about my atheism and I am happy to debate it with anyone who likes, but I never expect to persuade anyone to my view or to challenge them about their beliefs unless they want the debate. But some of them are so keen on saving my soul they end up frustrated. It also strikes me that if I did persuade them, it might make them miserable. I do a bit of arguing online with people from all over the county about politics mostly, but sometimes religion, and I wish I could say it was the same pleasant discourse there, but alas. Anonymity apparently brings out the worst in people.
So, what was she apologizing about? During our discussion the other night she had offered the opinion that though she was a Christian, believed in Jesus and that you got to heaven through his grace, she also believed some people who were not Christians went to heaven to because they knew Jesus, even without realizing it. She was kind enough to suggest that it would probably include me, and that she was sure I believed in God even if I didn't know it. I've had people before look me in the eye and say, "sorry, you are going to burn forever." I mentioned to her the position of some religious Christians that the only way to get to heaven was through Jesus and that they would reject her position. In fact, I mentioned that I had just heard a radio personality talking about it the day before (I actually listen to Christian radio down here sometimes while I'm driving, which I didn’t even know existed until I moved to the Bible belt) and he took exactly that position. It was Jesus or nothing. I understand.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, in church the next morning (she was on her way again last night when she stopped by) the pastor gave a sermon on this very topic. J now handed me an index card on which she had written the verse and the message he was speaking about. She wrote –
neither is there salvation
in any other: for there
is none other name under
heaven given among men,
whereby we must be
J and I had actually been talking about Acts the night before in another context when I told her my favorite story in the New Testament concerning Ananias and Sapphira, whose tale of woe I analyzed here on 4/16/11 and which I won’t repeat now (it was one of my favorite posts – I thought I would get some comments, but only received one ill tempered remark from a curmudgeon). In a nutshell though, I believe that Peter – yes, St. Peter - killed or had killed the unfortunately cheap couple who didn’t quite understand the consequences of communism and held back some stuff. She was well aware of the verse and thought that God had killed him, which I argued would have been an unlikely event in the New Testament and gave her some of my reasons why I thought Peter was guilty. She said she would read it again to see if she agreed.
The quote which was the subject of her index card is found in the very chapter before the one about Ananias and Sapphira, and starts with Peter and John, the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of the NT, finding themselves seized by the Temple leadership who came upon them preaching about Jesus. When they were brought before the high priest and his family they were asked “[b]y what power or what name did you do this?”
Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and explained that they healed the cripple today through the power of Jesus. He quoted a psalm to them, sort of putting it in their face that they had rejected Jesus (although, of course, he had denied him three times himself before the cock crowed), and then said:
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
I suppose it is a little gratifying that her pastor confirmed my understanding of the passage, but, my point had actually been that the idea disagreed with me and I reject the idea of justification through faith, as it means it is all God's doing and not the acts or ethics of the doer which is rewarded. It is the opposite of the more new agy “all paths to God are good,” which were I not an atheist, I would believe (but not, the similar "all paths lead to God"). But, wasn’t I talking about my town and not religion? I am so easy to sidetrack with theology.
J’s father is Ashton, although no one uses that name and he goes by a much more colorful and descriptive one he's been called since he was little. He is, as I said, my landlord, and, at 81 he is the hardest working man I know. He was born in the house I live in. Remarkably, Ashton has died twice from accidents, once brought back to life with a shot of adrenaline from his own uncle. This is not a secret, and I don't think he's proud of it, but just realizes it is kind of interesting.
He is almost always cheerful, drives a convertible, a van and a motor bike (no helmet, of course), helped build the roads around here, still regularly plays 27 holes of golf in 100 degree heat and later looks fresh as the proverbial daisy. He can tell you where every tree was on his property or around town since he was a kid, and has as many stories as Scabby, my favorite being the time the mayor ran away with the hoochie coochie girl at the town fair when Ashton was a lad, and how he wasn't allowed to go near the river at night because that's where the knife fighters hung out. We floated the river once together, and he knew that just as well, pointing out clearings on the shore that are still there where he had picnicked with his friends. His father told him when he was young the river was crystal clear. In his own youth (the 30s) it was filthy dirty, even disgusting. Now, it is somewhere in between (but, I wouldn’t drink out of it).
His girlfriend, who I’ll call Michigan, for that’s where she hails from, is about 15 or so years younger than he is, and seems to me one of the most financially successful people in town, although I’m not one to really know. She takes care of emotionally challenged adults at one of her homes (I believe she owns 3), and seems to have almost endless compassion for them and even for people who have done her wrong. For a while she owned a pizzeria in town run by Ashton which she did for fun, not money, and where I met almost everyone I have mentioned in this post – J, Betsy, Scabby, Ashton and her. It was there one day that Ashton, who I barely knew because he never seemed to stop working long enough to talk with, mentioned to me that since I was looking for a place to live, he had a house I might want to look at. We went right away and moving here was one of the best things that has happened to me - maybe ever. The pizzeria closed when Michigan had a health scare, and too bad (although she will probably save a fortune). Then, again, the store next to it and the one next to that are closed as well. Great town, but not a lot of business.
Michigan's best story is terrifying, about a young man who she lived next door to when she was a young woman with children, who snuck in her house when she wasn't home one day and waited to kill her. They found the evidence when she got home. Eventually, after doing some stuff I'm not going to repeat, he had left and went into another neighbor's house. He is likely still out there somewhere and she does think about it occasionally. Brrrrrrr.
Did I mention I live in a wonderful and interesting place - perhaps magical - and I am not done telling you about it (except, I am for today). Yet, when my friends from up north come to visit, most of them say something like - "it's very pretty" and in the same breath, "but I could never live here." I am sure they think so, but I think a little living would convince them.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .