Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Natchez Trace

     Last week I went on a three day bike ride on the Natchez Trace. The Trace goes from Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi. It’s a wide two-lane road with a 50 mph speed limit. The entire road is a national park. Originally it was an Indian trail, but in the early 1800’s people on the Ohio River began floating goods on barges down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, selling their goods there and walking back on the Trace.

     No commercial vehicles are allowed. There are no stores or houses on the Trace. The only towns it goes through are Tupelo and Jackson. It’s perfect for bicycling.

     In the 1970’s I took two trips on the Trace. The first was three friends and I bicycling from Tupelo to Jackson, about 100 miles, and back. One of us, Rodney Temples, a crazy Vietnam vet, borrowed a bicycle to ride with us even though he had no experience, unlike the rest of us who cycled all over Atlanta. Setting out from Tupelo—after of course visiting the King’s birthplace—Rodney took off and yelled over his shoulder that he’d see us in Jackson.

     We caught him in about five miles and for the next ninety-five we’d have to stop and wait on him periodically and we filled that time singing to him, “Yeah, yeah, go to Jackson/ Go ahead you big-talkin’ man/ Go on go to Jackson…”The June Carter part of the song.

     The second trip was three years later. Dan Denoon and I rode from Jackson to Natchez and back, again a 200 mile round trip. We pulled into Natchez in July heat so hot you could see it rising off the pavement. On an otherwise deserted narrow street in an old part of town, while I was leaning against a wall to rest in the shade, an old black man appeared and told me he didn’t believe in that civil rights, that white folks were superior and the young coloreds were messing with the divine order.

     I also encountered my first armadillos in south Mississippi. They were still decades away from North Georgia. On both of these trips we rode the whole way the first day and stayed in a motel, then took two days to ride back, camping in sleeping bags without a tent along the way. Armadillos are so stupid they will crawl over a person in a sleeping bag scavenging for garbage. They do not fear tennis shoes flung at them. They got body armor.

     On last weeks’ trip my plan was to ride about 120 miles, from Muscle Shoals to Nashville, over three days, with my assistant Michael driving me to the starting point and Cynthia picking me up at the Nashville end. I figured three days to do the 120 miles because it’s hillier in Tennessee and I’m 30-odd years older than on the earlier trips. Also, I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. I booked two places to sleep in a bed near the Trace.

     This is a long tale so I’ll be giving it to you in installments. The next will be “Day One” and then with “Day Two” we’ll get some pictures, because it wasn’t until then that I figured out how to take pictures with my cell phone.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day One: Collinwood

     Michael and I set out from Covington at 9:30 AM last Wednesday morning thinking we’d be in Muscle Shoals in four or five hours. It ended up taking seven and a half. We were idiotically using a map of the eastern U.S. I had in my car which of course doesn’t give you a very blown-up view of Alabama and doesn’t include a lot of smaller roads.

     We were fine until we got off I-20 near Birmingham to head northwest. We kept missing our turns and having to fall back on various plan B’s. We never stopped to buy an Alabama map. I’ve already alluded to why that was.

     We only stopped once, to eat at so-and-so’s Barbeque in, I think, Gadsden, Alabama, where they had a large menu but DID NOT HAVE BRUNSWICK STEW, and even though it took so long I don’t think we could have shaved more than half a hour off the trip if we’d been riding with someone who knew how to get there or had sense to get a better map. It just took a lot longer than we expected.

     I’d intended to start riding at about one or two o’clock Alabama time and to get on the Trace just before it crossed the Tennessee River because the bridge looked so cool in the pictures. That would’ve been about a 30 mile ride before my first night’s stay in Collinwood, TN. But since I wasn’t going to be getting out of the car until after four, I decided to get on the road about 10 miles farther north.

     Near the end of our drive, not being sure how to get to our next road, we did the girly thing and stopped for directions in Florence. It turned out that the real estate office I went in had a woman at the desk who said she didn’t know how to get to highway 20, so she called her boss out to tell me.

     It was about fifty yards away on the street that ran beside her office.

     A few minutes later I started pedaling north. The entire twenty miles to Collinwood was uphill but it was a very slight incline and really easy pedaling. In this very southern part of central Tennessee I crossed five or six small streams per mile. There were also many swarms of small black bugs, bigger than gnats but much smaller than houseflies, so that I had to keep my mouth shut and be continuously brushing them out of the hair on my arms.

     The city limits of Collinwood were only a few hundred yards from the Trace. Collinwood is about the size of Social Circle, Georgia in 1960, less than a thousand people I guess and like Social Circle in 1960 it had one of everything one might need in easy walking distance: a Piggly Wiggly, a drug store, a florist, a hardware store, a bank, one church each of your common denominations, and a restaurant, but I was soon informed that better food was cooked to order at the Exxon station, advice I took and was glad I did.

     It was getting dark when I pulled into Collinwood and called Mr. and Mrs. Butler, proprietors of Miss Monetta’s Country Cottage where I was to stay. They had already decided to come downtown and watch for me. I followed them the three blocks to the cottage.

     The cottage, which I’d reserved for $75, was a two bedroom house with a living room, dining room, large kitchen, breakfast nook, a front and back porch with rocking chairs and swings and a large screen cable T.V. for the first game of the World Series.

     When I left the next morning around 10:00 (I was waiting for it to warm up some) I wrote a whole page in their guest book. Among other things I wrote: “It’s just like being at home, only better—cleaner, no Sarah Palin calling me every 15 minutes.”

     I highly recommend Collinwood and Miss Monetta’s.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Day Two

     I left about ten o’clock on Day Two, waiting for it to warm up some and figuring that would get me there in time for supper in Falls Hollow where I’d spend the night. I took two miniature Snicker bars from Miss Monneta’s jar for some lunch time energy.

     The ride on Day Two started out with some mild climbs and descents and I thought “Oh, this is much more interesting than the monotonous gradual ascent.” I would later come to yearn for that old monotony.

     I decided I’d learn to work the camera on my cell phone but the pictures I attempted didn’t show the scene I was aiming at. This picture depicts my discovery that up until this point I’d been holding the phone backward.

     A couple of observations about the Trace are worth mentioning here. Throughout my entire ride I saw six empty cigarette packages, five beer empties, two plastic soda bottles and a Reynolds aluminum foil box. That’s it, period. At no time did I see prisoners picking up garbage.

     Throughout the ride I saw only three instances of road kill: two small snakes and a frog, all near the side of the road. On the other hand, until the middle of day two, the only animals other than birds I saw were squirrels and one dog. I know there were at least deer there because I saw their droppings in the road and many tracks on the old unpaved Trace—more on that road later.

     Finally on the afternoon of Day Two I came silently upon a large doe, about forty feet off the road in the woods. She didn’t run—no hunting is allowed there—I just looked at her and she looked at me and that’s the way we wanted it to be. I called her Lola.

     I thought a lot about this absence of road kill. Much time for thinking is available on a three day ride through the backwoods. I attribute this lack of carnage to the low speed limit, the fact that the road is for sightseeing, which can’t be done very well at night, and the fact that most of the traffic is RV’s and campers pulled by retired people who don’t drive at night anyway.

     The picture of the goofy guy looking in the camera was taken on the “Old Trace.” The road I was cycling follows the “Old Trace” pretty closely, but better equipment was used to straighten curves, reduce inclines, and build bridges.

     My first successful shot is of a section of the Old Trace about two miles long. It’s roughly paved for one-way traffic so that motorists may briefly experience the old road.

     This shot is of a “scenic overlook” on the Old Trace. Not very impressive for a mountain boy but about as good as it gets in these parts.

     Meanwhile back on the ride, the uphills and downhills turned into a long steady medium uphill grade. I can now report that from Muscle Shoals, Alabama until about fifteen miles from the Trace’s end near Nashville, it is 90% uphill and after Collinwood the ascent is much steeper.

     Sometime around mid-afternoon, I started to suffer. The tendons covering my right knee, heretofore having been body parts whose existence I had little reason to consider, proclaimed themselves through steady aching. The little streams of Day One were not to be seen. Now when I saw water it was like this picture here. This one in the Little Buffalo river. I came to hate seeing streams like this, because although there was some coasting down to them, that didn’t compensate for the steep ascent to follow.

     Sometimes streams would follow the Trace for miles on end, but they always flowed in the opposite direction from which I pedaled.

     This is a picture of what the road always looked like in the direction I traveled. You see where the road disappears from sight and it looks as if it might level off there? Well, it doesn’t.

     Historical markers on the Trace are common and a big deal for the aging uphill cyclist, because other than the call of nature, there’s not much reason to get off the bike. You read them all. Some of them twice.

     About five miles from Falls Hollow I came to signs pointing up a paved road to the left telling me that 1.1 miles off the Trace is the burial site and memorial of Meriwether Lewis. Mr. Lewis, by all accounts a mentally unstable person, had after his famous exploration been appointed by a grateful President Jefferson as governor of the Louisiana Territory, and during that tenure had somehow managed, under mysterious circumstances, to get himself shot and killed at an inn formerly located here on the Trace.

     There are milepost markers every mile along the Trace. At this point they were getting farther and farther apart, and I would not have ridden another 2.2 miles if Meriwether were going to rise from the grave and explain how he got himself shot.

     The last mile and a half to Falls Hollow was a steep descent and while I was glad not to be pedaling for the nonce, I cursed what I knew would counterbalance it in the morning.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Falls Hollow and Day Three

     The best thing about the Falls Hollow Restaurant and RV Park for the cyclist is that it’s located almost directly under the Trace on a highway the Trace bridges over. The worst thing is that it’s called Falls Hollow which should have tipped me off that it’s in a hollow which must have seriously steep sides if there are falls there.

     The place advertised two “motel like” rooms one of which I’d booked, primarily because it was right on the Trace at a distance from Collinwood where I needed to stop before the 53 mile ride to Nashville.

     After finding the proprietor in his house behind the restaurant, he led me through the restaurant where people where prepping dinner to one of the aforementioned rooms.

     The room was a pretty sorry affair. The bed creaked. There was no table for playing solitaire, and although it had Dish T.V., the set was so old that the dish remote would not operate its volume. It was also so small and out of focus that I couldn’t read the score in the baseball game wearing reading glasses and from six inches away. It reminded me of spending the night at a poor relation’s house, e.g., it took a half hour for the bathtub to fill.

     I’d arrived at around four o’clock, and after two airline bottles of vodka was the first person in the restaurant for dinner. I had a ribeye and fries, which was O.K., and several cups of pretty good coffee. (I always order steak in a questionable restaurant—say I’m at the Holiday Inn and decide to eat in their restaurant—figuring they can’t screw that up too bad.)

     As I say the bed creaked, I couldn’t see the T.V., and the four cups of coffee were a mistake. I alternated playing solitaire on the bed with reading Made In America by Bill Bryson which I highly recommend. It’s about the development of peculiarly American English and it’s full of interesting trivia. Do you know why the South came to be called “Dixie”? I do. You could borrow my copy but I gave it away to a guy I met in a bar who I thought would like it.

     The Falls Hollow experience was at the other end of the spectrum from the endorphin euphoria I felt at Miss Monnetta’s. Despite repeated attempts I didn’t get to sleep until three A.M.

     Nevertheless I was up at 7:00 eating a good breakfast which the proprietor came over to make for me and was pedaling by 8:00. It had turned cold and there was frost on the ground, but Day Two it had taken me six hours to ride forty miles and I had 53 to cover on Day Three.

     The hill leading out of Falls Hollow was steep and continued upward past the falls to my right as far ahead as I could see. These falls were nothing like Niagara or even Amicalola. They were more of a long steep cascade.

     My knee hurt continuously for the rest of the trip. It took me thirty-five minutes of lowest gear pedaling to cover the first mile. I winced with every down pedal on the right. Cyclists use their strong side, their “right handed” side in my case, to do more of the work. I developed a mental count of “easy, left, easy, left,” trying to concentrate on doing the hard pushes with my left leg. I must have looked like Gunsmoke’s Chester riding a bicycle.

     I gave some brief thought to getting off and pushing, but that would cost me time and I needed to get to Nashville before it got dark and cold, but the bigger concern was that serious cyclist machismo says you don’t get off and push, i.e., I didn’t want another cyclist to see me pushing.

     Here’s a good place for an aside about other cyclists. I only encountered four other cyclists on the Trace. I’m pleased to say that none of them overtook me from behind. Three of the four were my age or older. One of them was an old guy on one of those bikes where you sit back in a “chair” and pedal out in front of you. He complained that he was having to ride into the wind. Although there was a brisk cold breeze on Day Two when I encountered him, I had little sympathy for the old fart because the wind was blowing from my left to right—which does make pedaling a little harder—and he was going down the incline I was steadily climbing.

     After a mile and a quarter of climbing out of Falls Hollow, I returned to the steady medium ascent of Day Two.

     Pictured here is another section of the Old Trace, unpaved, and it’s supposed to look much as it did when Colonel Jackson led his men down it to fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

     This picture shows me as I looked bundled up for the cold of Day Three. It was taken by an old couple in an RV who told me that I’d be pretty soon reaching some long downhill. The headgear was fashioned by Yours Truly from a bicycle helmet and an old lady’s gardening hat which I cut the crown off of and attached the brim by cutting holes in it and passing the helmet straps through them.

     This was around noon and indeed that downhill was about twenty miles ahead. It came after a historical marker denoting the Tennessee Valley divide. At one time it had been the boundary between Tennessee and Indian lands to the south. What I discovered on my own about it is that it is a high ridge which separates where water flows south to the Tennessee River and where streams flow northward to the Cumberland.

     (The Tennessee River comes down out of the Appalachians, goes through Chattanooga, then down into north Alabama to get around the highland I was climbing before it turns north again and joins with the Ohio and on to the Mississippi).

     But before I was to reach the aforementioned divide, there came the episode of Fly which is a small settlement about a mile off the Trace where I intended to have some lunch and which was to become a fly in the ointment of this tale.

     A few miles from Fly my rear tire went flat. I stopped and pumped it up, hoping that it was a slow leak. In another mile it was flat again.

     I stopped at a bridge where I could sit on a concrete ledge while I patched the tube. Did you know that they now put a green oozy slime inside of bicycle tubes now so that you can see where a hole is? It was news to me.

    I’d come equipped for this contingency, but it was an aggravation that took about fifteen minutes. Although I could see some green stuff of the other side of the tube from the hole I was patching, I thought it came from the same hole.

      My patch job proved ineffective, and my tire soon went flat. Being only about a mile from the road to Fly, and being hungry and cranky, I decided to push the bike to Fly and eat something. After that I could see if I could fix the leak or else call Cynthia to pick me up there. I’m happy to report that no cyclists saw me pushing.

     The attempted tube repair and the two miles of pushing put me an hour-and-a-half behind schedule. It was 2:30 when I reached the Fly General Store.

     If you ever have the opportunity, by all means go to the Fly General Store. Like Collinwood, it is a vanishing fragment of Americana. It’s a small wooden building with gas pumps and a little bit of a lot of things inside. It’s like the country stores I frequented as a kid. While there I spoke with a pretty British woman who said the store was like one her grandmother had operated.

     They also had the best ham and American cheese on white bread sandwich which I’ve ever devoured, and an air pump which saved my arm some exertion.

     My cell phone wouldn’t get a signal, but a friendly customer whose would let me use hers, and I was able to leave a message on the cell of Cynthia who was en route to Nashville. The elderly and gracious Mr. Fly let me leave her the store’s land line number. (Fly is named not after the insect, nor because it is phat, but after the Fly family, whose French ancestor fought with LaFayette during the American Revolution and was given a large land grant in which is now Fly. Other than the store and a lumber yard, there are no other businesses in Fly.)

     After the sandwich, I took the tube off again and discovered that there were inexplicably (at least to me) four holes going all the way around the tube at the spot where I’d patched the first one. A much larger patch and Mr. Fly’s air did the trick.

     While I was patching the tire, Cynthia called and I told her she’d need to ride down the Trace when she got to Nashville and find me there or, worst case scenario, sitting outside the Fly General Store which closed at 5:00.

     It was four o’clock when I got back on the Trace and pedaled as fast as my knee would permit. It was indeed getting really cold and dark when she found me seventeen miles from Nashville.

     If you’re ever in Nashville and especially if you’re staying at the Vanderbilt Courtyard by Marriott, I recommend the Midtown Café, a wonderful upscale restaurant in what looks like a large old tool shed right across the street, a blessing to me since I could barely walk. Our waitress was a twenty year veteran who knew everything about the wares and was just plain fun. After martinis and a bottle of wine she insisted it was Tequila Time.

     There’s an eighty mile segment of the Trace from where I started this trip to Tupelo which I still haven’t ridden. I hope to do that this spring and then drive to Graceland.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Back on the Job(These next 4 pieces were written in 2007)

     Since we last met up here, I’ve had occasion to compile a résumé-like document. I won’t go into why, because it’s a story that, as Grandpa Simpson says, isn’t so much interesting as it is long. To understand the following saga all we need to know about the résumé is that it ended, under the heading “Other Skills and Accomplishments,” with “am able to sing lyrics to the theme song of any T.V. western ever aired,” and “can work crossword puzzles faster then Bill Clinton. (This last hasn’t been documented but I’m willing to take him on any time, any place.)”
     Having spent a good forty-five minutes putting the thing together, I couldn’t let it just founder in a file cabinet, so I decided to apply for a few jobs, see what the market is for a geezer with no particular talent other than those just mentioned.
     The jobs I really wanted – general manager of the Braves, groupie tester for Led Zepplin – obviously required “skills and accomplishments” outside my poor resume, so I decided to buffer my ego by starting with a job for which the qualifications were patently low.
     I applied for “Director of F.E.M.A.”
I put my résumé and cover letter in the mail addressed to “His Excellency, George W. Bush,” and waited. (I was pretty sure “His Excellency” wasn’t the proper form of address, but, figuring he wouldn’t know either, I didn’t go to the trouble of looking it up).
     One’s zeal for such schemes often pales in the hangover piercing light of day, and I’d almost forgotten about my resume when my secretary buzzed me one morning a few weeks later. “There’s a guy on the phone who says he’s the President of the United States. He sounds retarded.”
     My secretary types fast but doesn’t watch much news.
     “Put him through,” I say.
     “Mr. President, it’s good to hear from you. You must be calling about my job application.”
     “Job application? Naw, I’m callin’ to see if you kin loan me a coupla hunerd
bucks… Nah! Just messin’ widjeu, I’m richer’n Oprah. I like at resume ye sent.”
     “Well thank you, Mr. President. I spent some time on it.”
     “I particularly like the part about workin’ crossword puzzles faster’n Slick Willie.
      That there’s what interests me. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’s some folks sayin’ I’ve hired folks based on their loyalty and politics stead of their qualifications.”
     “I believe I did run across that in some godless rag, sir.”
     “Well I’m looking to preserve my legacy here. Hire me some smart folks down
the home stretch, ones they caint accuse me of hirein’ just cause we’re oil bidness buddies. You say in your cover letter that ye don’t even like me. Ain’t that right?”
    “Well, what I actually said sir—with all due respect— is that I didn’t vote for
you, but don’t take it personal. There were millions of people I didn’t vote for.”
     “Well, ye kinda implied ye don’t like me, but I like at. Shoot from the hip. Stick
to yer guns right or wrong. I think we might have a job for ye. We just need to set up that puzzle workin’ contest with Bill Clinton.”
     “Do you know President Clinton?”
     “No, but my diddy does. I’ll have one a my people git back widjeu when I get this
set up. Heck fire! I’ll just get Willie to call ye hisself.”
     We said our goodbyes then he gung up, somebody else hung up and I hung up.
     Thus began a chapter in my life that would lead me to travel in Air Force One; bone up on etuis, arêtes, epees and Uri; and to meet presidents past, present, and possibly future, as well as a really hot-looking white-trash woman from the Ozarks.
Next week – J.E.M vs. W.J.C.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Showdown on Pennsylvania Ave.

“Mr. Millsaps, this is Bill Clinton. Wassup, buddy?”
This was the second time in the past week I’d been called by an American president and I was thinking nobody’s going to believe this. I might as well claim I was called by Kennedy and Nixon.
“Wassup, Mr. President.”
“You ready to have our crossword showdown?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“How about next Monday at 1 p.m.? Some Secret Service guys will be in Mansfield to pick you up at 8:30.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m striking a jury in an armed robbery case Monday.”
He laughs. “I think we can get that put off. Your client have a bond he can make?”
“O.K., we’ll fix that too. Don’t want your client spending extra time in jail ‘cause you made some outrageous claim in a résumé, now do we?”
“Mr. President, if you don’t mind my asking, why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”
“I’m doing it because George H. W. Bush asked me to. He’s been such a good sport about me making him a one-termer I just couldn’t say no. And the fact of the matter is this is a win-win situation. If you win you get the job, and you gotta be better’n anybody Junior would pick on his own. If I win that’ll be nice ‘cause I like winning, and either way we keep our fearless leader busy a while on something where he can’t do nearly as much harm as he does when left unsupervised.”
“I see your point. I’ll see you next Monday, I guess”
“I’m taking you down, buddy.”
After we hung up I for the first time wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I was about to make a fool of myself, which I’m used to but not on such a large stage. I mean the man is a Rhodes’ scholar. He’s probably pretty good with puzzles.

Monday at 12:30 I’m escorted into the Oval Office where President Bush gets up from his desk and pumps my hand.
“Mr. Millstead, the puzzle man, hope ye don’t mind we gotcha here a little early. We got a little pre-game strategy to work on. Now this’ll be your spot rycheer.”
He ushers me to a high-backed armchair, and when I’m seated says, “Now this little ear plug thing here pulls right outa the chair on the side Slick Willie caint see, and if ye run into any trouble, the Vice President is just outside the door with a camera on your puzzle. He’ll have a dictionary, an atlas and Google right there widdem.”
“Mr. President, with all due respect,” I say, getting up, “Isn’t the point here to see whether or not I can actually beat President Clinton?”
“Well dang Millhouse, I see ye point. Well then ye probably not gonna like…Well never mind. It’s just that you’re my boy here and I like winning. George W. Bush is a winner.
“Can I getcha some coffee or ice tea?”
It’s at this point that President Clinton enters followed by Al Gore and a snarling man on all fours who has Mr. Gore’s pant leg in his teeth and is shaking it furiously.
“Get this thing offa me,” Gore shrieks.
“Down Cheney, down,” the president says, grabbing him by the collar. “Ye gonna blow ye pacemaker.”
He gets the vice-president out the door, and turns to the three of us. “Sorry boys, Dick’s just doin’ his job; he just has a little trouble sometimes knowin’ what is and what ain’t an attack dog sicheashun…What are you doin’ here anyway Gore?”
“I’m here as an observer to make sure you don’t cheat. I know you’ll steal this thing if you can.”
“Steal it huh? Well talkin’ bout stealin’ stuff, I mona check’n see if somebody done stole the Goodyear Blimp, ‘cause it looks like ye done swallered it since the last time I seen ye. I got my doubts ‘bout global warmin,’ but obesity is real son.”
Mr. Gore takes a step toward the president before Clinton stops him with a hand on the chest.
“Now, now, just calm down Al. He’s just making a joke instead of being one for a change. Let’s all smoke us a cigar and have some fun and games here.”
He produces a golden case which opens to reveal eight H. Upmann Churchills and holds it out to me, but before I can accept the president has his own humidor open saying, “Better take one a mine Millstop. Ye don’t know where them’s been.”
“Mine’s better,” Clinton says.
“Yeah. Well ye probly got yours from Feedel Castro personally.”
While they’re bickering I take two of each, because, well, I can.
Meanwhile Mr. Gore has stepped between them.
“Now there’ll be no smoking. Air quality’s bad enough as it is. You’re setting a bad example for the American people. Have you read the reports out of - -.”
“Shut up, Al,” his former boss interjects, “and smoke your cigar. It’s that kinda namby-pamby-mama’s-boy attitude that made the troglodyte here president instead of you.”
“Ye think you’re so smart Bill Clinton. Ye think ye can use big words and I won’t know you’re makin fun a me. Well I been to college too, smarty pants, and I like the Troggs as well as the next fella. ‘Wild Thang. Ye make my heart sang. Ye make everthang groovy’.”
The president is playing air guitar when the First Lady comes in carrying a tray with coffee, tea, Kool-Aid and Oreos. “I thought you boys might could use some refreshments.” She smiles sweetly until she notices that we’re all holding large unlit cigars. “I hope ya’ll aren’t planning on smoking those in here.”
She says this to the company at large but she’s glaring at the president who grins and shakes his head, and we all follow suit when she looks our way.
When she’s out the door, the president cracks it a little and looks down the hall, then gives us a grinning thumbs-up, whereupon we all sit down and light up.
Next week: Let the Games Begin (And I haven’t forgotten the Ozark woman, she’s just been delayed.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Games Begin

     We’ve all got our coffee and cigars and are sitting down except for President Clinton who’s looking around the Oval Office.
     “Where’s the green leather recliner?”
     “Laura moved it to the attic; said it looked un-dignefied.”
     “That was my favorite chair. I had some good naps in that chair.”

     “Well to be honest widjeu Willie, I liked at chair too, butchee know women, they get a hankerin’ to rearrange furniture, ye gotta hep em er jes git outta the way.”

     “My wife don’t move furniture, George. I can’t even get her to bake cookies.”

     “Not eme the Nestle Toll House kine thatche just gotta cut in little pieces and slap in the oven?”

     “Not even them, George, and I love Nestle Toll House Cookies, especially when they’re still hot and gooey in the middle.”

     “You ever take two of ‘em and make a marshmallow cream sandwich?” Mr. Gore wants to know. “You don’t even have to bake ‘em. Just get you some cookie dough and slap some marshmallow cream in it. Now what’s really good is when you deep fry that in some peanut oil. That’s a world-class culinary experience.”

     We’re all commiserating with the former president when the door opens and President Carter walks in. We all get up and shake hands.

     “Well, Mr. Goody-goody Gore, ye worried ‘bout thangs bein’ fair now? Lookie who I gotcheer. I got the wurl famous e-lecshun refree and do-gooder, Pres-i-dent James…,” the president pauses for a brief whispered exchange with President Carter, “Earl Carter, and he’s here to cer-ti-fy that thangs are on the up-and-up wid my puzzle contest, aintchee Jimmy.”

     “Those smell like some mighty fine stogies you boys are havin’ heah, and ah’d love to stay an watch the contest but theahs some children stahvin in Africa ah promised to save, and ah see Vice-President Gowah is heah as an observah anyway.

     “President Bush asked me to look at the contest puzzle to make shouh it’s fayuh. Ah have it heah in this bubble-wrap envelope—well, it was bubble-wrap befouh President Bush popped all the bubbles—but it was prepayuhed by Mr. Will Shortz of the New Yawk Times based on a theme suggested by President Bush."

     “Ah’ve cayahfully reviewed it and it seems fayah. Both the contestants ah about the same age and from similah backgrounds—“

     “Ye mean white trash, Jimmy?” The president wants to know.

     “They ah both children of wukin class Suthun families who got scholahships to prestigious univuhsities and theyah both lawyahs. The knowledge requiahed to wuk the puzzle seems equally accessable to both.”
     When President Carter insists he has to leave for Somalia, President Bush stops him.
     “Here, I wonche ta take the resta these cookies to yer kids,” he says , indicating the Oreos on the silver tray, “tell ‘em Amurica aint fergot ‘em.”

     While we’re distracted by the President looking for something to put the cookies in, Gore grabs a handful and puts them in his pocket.

     With that done, the president hands President Clinton and me each a puzzle and tells us to “turn ‘em upside down on yer desk ‘til we ready to start,” even though neither of us has a desk, just the copies of Money magazine he’s given us to support our puzzles.

     “Now we gotta git the timekeeper. C’mon in here Miss Yokum.”

     Whereupon a young woman enters who’s a dead ringer for Jessica Simpson – she could be Jessica Simpson for all I know – wearing the “Li’l Abner” Daisy Mae costume. You know, the one that just covers her bottom before it turns to raggedy threads.

     “Wait a munute,” Gore says through a mouthful of Oreo. “We don’t need a timekeeper. Whoever finishes first wins.”

     “Shut up, Al,” Clinton says, adjusting his britches, “I’d be happy to have Ms. Yokum here be our, uh, timekeeper.”

     “We need us a timekeeper, smarty pants, cause we caint be here all day. I got im-portant matters a state to tend to. You got the planet to save. Willie’s got expensive o-rations to make. Millweed here’s probly got some ambulances to chase.

     “Naw, at the end a twenty minutes, game over. We take up the papers an I git Laura to grade em. Everbody awright widdat?”

     He brings out from behind his desk a notebook-paper-sized tablet and places it on an easel, a really small easel, maybe fifteen inches tall, and sets it on the floor in front of us. It has “20” written on the first page.

     “Gentlemen, starchur engines,” the President shouts and adds, winking at Ms. Yokum, “I always wanted to git to say that.”

     I flip my puzzle over and see that the theme is “Yippie ki-yay,” and locate the first long answer. The clue is, “Wild as a wind in Oregon…[“Maverick”],” and I fill in, “Blowing up a canyon.”

     Same with “A _________ is the man called Paladin. “Soldier of fortune,” I write. “He packed no star as…[“The Rebel”].” I answer “he wandered far,” and then “Lonely man, Cheyenne, where will you…” produces a quick “be sleeping tonight,” and all my theme answers are finished.

     I look over at President Clinton and see that he’s pretty much finished the top left corner when Ms. Yokum bends over at the waist to flip page 20 and I stop working my puzzle because her attire, as they say, leaves little to the imagination. Then I’m further distracted by a primal groaning to my right.

     I look at President Clinton, who looks like my dog Ginsberg watching me eat a pork chop.

     I get back to my puzzle but it’s a good twenty seconds before my opponent looks at his, a process we’d repeat every time another minute rolled over.

     President Clinton and I were both about two-thirds through when President Bush called time. He took my puzzle.

     “Looks like ye done purty good here Millpond.” Then he took Clinton’s.

     “Good Lord, Willie! Ye done drooled all over the page. Ye caint read any a this. It’s e-legable. Millstrap wins!” he shouts, holding up my arm like a boxing champ.

     “You done stole another one, you…you…troglodyte!” Gore yells, which starts Bush to singing “Wild Thing” again. “We’ll file a protest with the Supreme Court, won’t we Bill…Bill?”

     But President Clinton was nowhere to be seen, and neither, curiously, was Ms. Yokum.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wasn't That Special

   “Now,” as the Church Lady says, “wasn’t that special?”

    Perhaps we’ll revisit the Connecticut cowboy and the southern presidents again – I’m thinking they might provide Election 08 coverage or call a Braves game -- but for now we’re going elsewhere. In future columns I’ll be writing on, inter alia, (O.K., I’m a lawyer, you’ll get some Latin) bumper stickers and church signs, people with tiny phones growing out of their ears, eating fruit, nostalgia for the old Wal-Mart, nostalgia for the old People’s Drugs, global warming and land speculation, armadillos, being a song writer, being a band manager and making myself Traffic Czar of Newton County.

     If you have ideas for columns, email me at the address which I hope appears below, but today the subject is my love/hate relationship with Longhorn Steakhouse – any of them, they’re all the same.

     I go out for lunch almost every weekday and to dinner maybe bi-weekly. I’m familiar with what’s out there. Longhorn serves the best steaks available locally and their grilled salmon, which I’m enjoying as I write this, is the best I’ve had anywhere, anytime. They know how to cook asparagus superbly and the kitchen runs like clockwork.

     So what’s not to like?

     What’s not to like is what I have to go through to get the food.

     You’ve heard me rant in this space before about having to listen to restaurant servers, and at Longhorn they bring the whole package of obnoxious jargon – commanding me to “Enjoy,” asking me not the standard, “Is everthang all right?” but “Was everything excellent?” and answer all requests with “Not a problem.”

     So I have to be in a good mood to venture eating here, else I might snap and hurt somebody, maybe a young woman who’s just trying to make a living in the manner her employer has instructed. Because as part of their training, these young servers must put to memory the company training manual, “What Stupid Americans Like and How to Give it to Them.” I imagine this document beginning, “Hi! You now work for Longhorn Steakhouse, as advertised on T.V.! That makes you a star! People will be flattered if you spend a long time telling them what’s plainly written on the menu...”

     It should be pointed out that I usually lunch alone. It’s where I read newspapers, work crossword puzzles, write this column. I value this time. I’m happy here with a, I must say, comfortable booth to myself.

     Here’s a sample dialogue between a Longhorn waitress and me. The actual dialogue is in quotes while the parenthetical information is what I think rather than say.

     “Hi! Welcome to Longhorn! I’m Overdosed On Stimulants and I’ll be your server! Have you been to Longhorn before?”

     “Many times.” (But that’s not going to stop you from telling me what’s written on the menu, is it?).

     “Today we have two new items and they’re both excellent!”

     At this point she sits down in the booth opposite me. I’m not kidding. It’s happened more than once. It must be in the manual. “If you see a man eating alone, he’s probably lonely. His drab life will be brightened if you sit with him a few minutes.”

     “Our new trout dish in our new lunch specials menu is my favorite! It’s grilled to perfection then smothered in our own special blend of bacon, butter and lard. Would you like to try it?”

     “No thank you, I know exactly what I want. I’ll have…”(Who invited you to sit at my table? If your going to do that you probably shouldn’t put this large serrated steak knife on the table. A swift flick of the wrist through the jugular and you’ll be spouting other material entirely. You don’t know who you’re messing with. Really, I’m like a cat.)

     I’m having my coffee. The salmon was great, and talk about biting the hand that feeds, I’m finishing this column. In an ironic twist, my server today, (only once that I can recall have I had the same one more than once,) Amber, apparently hasn’t read the manual. At any rate she’s actually paying attention rather than chattering non-stop. She sees what’s up, is polite and says no more than is necessary. If I were the Mormon protagonist on “Big Love,” I’d be trying to line Amber up as my next wife.