Monday, October 31, 2016

Tennessee Darkness

This true story contains details that are bound to be boring unless you have a good imagination. If you do, then place yourself in the backseat next to my thoughtful brother-in-law, David (who gave up the shotgun seat because I get carsick in the back), and take a little ride with us.

Small towns in Eastern Tennessee abound in pumpkins and scarecrows in October. Cornstalks and bales of hay adorned with witches’ hats and cut-out black cats decorate store fronts and residential front porches, reminding local citizens and tourists alike that Halloween is fast approaching, that ghosts and goblins lurk in the shadows, awaiting their designated night to prowl.

I traveled with my sister Judy and her husband, David, who had invited me to share their rented vacation cabin in Sevierville, Tennessee. We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon, guided by the detailed directions in the cabin owner’s email. She had warned us to take care on the steep, graveled driveway, but we made it just fine the first time. We dropped off our luggage, explored and admired the cabin and the colorful fall foliage surrounding it, then set out to find dinner.

We drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant the owner had recommended, but it was closed that Sunday evening. So was the cafe across the street. Confident we’d find an open restaurant in an area that caters to tourists, we headed toward the main road that runs from north to south, from Sevierville to Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg, with nothing but road signs to distinguish one town from another. We started in Sevierville that night but didn’t find dinner until Pigeon Forge.

We settled on a Cracker Barrel exactly like the one here at home. It was crowded; we had a long wait. We finished our meal after eight o’clock and were eager to get back to the cabin for some much needed rest. Judy pulled up the cabin’s address on the GPS. We’d expected to drive north on the main road back to Sevierville, but the disembodied voice of the GPS lady had other ideas; she wanted us to drive south toward Gatlinburg. That didn’t seem logical, so Judy made a U-turn and drove north for a distance while the three of us debated what to do. Should we follow the GPS instructions or strike out on our own to try to find the cabin? Logic reigned over boldness; we made a second U-turn and listened to the GPS lady.

She took us almost all the way to Gatlinburg before instructing us to turn left and then turn left again immediately. In other words, we made a third U-turn. This one took us off the main road and onto a backroad that ran through a thick forest on the side of a mountain. The road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass, but no center line was painted on it, nor were white lines painted on the edges, even where the ground dropped off precipitously on one side or the other. Worst of all, we were surrounded by blackness.

The light of the full harvest moon we’d noticed earlier didn’t penetrate the broad canopy of treetops. My sister’s SUV has headlights that switch automatically between normal and bright when they sense another vehicle nearby. That feature didn’t work in the forest. The headlight sensor must have interpreted the trees or the mountainside as traffic. The lights stayed on low-beam, never shining higher than two feet above the ground or farther than two car-lengths ahead of us.

Did you know that a mountain road can turn sharply in either direction in the distance of two car-lengths? Did you know that the blackness at the far end of the lights can disguise a wall of rock or wood as well as a sudden steep drop downward? Can you imagine how frightening it is to find yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar forest on a curvy, hilly road on a pitch dark night with no one in the vehicle both fit enough and brave enough to hike for help if necessary?

About the time we started wondering aloud what kinds of creatures hid themselves in those woods, a mist started rising from the road. Its long, white streaks curled upward, waving like cheerleaders’ spirit fingers, further obscuring the roadway. That’s all we needed. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Practical concerns about local black bears gave way to eerie thoughts and faux-jokes about mythical vampires and werewolves.

My sister was a trouper. She gasped a few times (we all did when the road surprised us), but she maintained a slow, safe speed and steered precisely along roads with similar-sounding names: Bird Ridge Road, Bird Creek Road, Old Birds Creek Road, Bird Hill Road. Who would have guessed that Old Birds Creek Road loops around and crosses Bird Creek Road in two different places? Each time the GPS lady said to turn onto a road we believed we were already on, Judy would make the next possible turn, then stop and wait while the GPS recalculated the route. If we were directed to turn right in half a mile, if Judy couldn’t take her eyes off the road long enough to check the odometer, if we didn’t know how to estimate half a mile in near total darkness and there turned out to be two possible right turns before we reached the correct one, it was easy to make a wrong guess.

Finally, we made our way from Old Birds Creek Road to the location of the cabin. I forgot to mention earlier that the cabin’s steep driveway had a sharp left turn halfway up. The headlights shone up the hill and dispersed into the trees, leaving the turn in deep shadow. Judy glimpsed the turn at the last moment and steered hard into it, kicking up gravel and making the tires spin. We were stuck. On a hill. Sort of sideways, with a drop-off behind us. The tires or the transmission or some kind of car thing was making a horrible squealing, groaning noise, while David was yelling from the backseat, “Don’t back up! Don’t back up whatever you do!” David told Judy to put the car in low gear, but low gear wasn’t identified on the shift indicator. He told her where low gear should be; she moved the shift lever next to that tiny embossed dash and gamely tried again. The car lurched once, twice, then the tires found a grip and we eased forward to park right next to the cabin.

We made a decision that night that for the rest of our stay we’d get home before dark.


In the daylight hours we felt privileged to travel the GPS lady’s same suggested, circuitous route. We admired the way the hills and curves hugged the mountain. We were awed by the vivid, translucent red and yellow leaves on the same trees that had hovered menacingly over us in the first night’s darkness. In the daylight we marveled at the splendid array Mother Nature had laid across the hills of Tennessee, and we thanked God for keeping us healthy enough to travel to such a beautiful place.

In the daylight we gave no thought to night creatures that rest in caves and hollow logs until the sun goes down.

Have a safe, happy Halloween, everybody!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Disturbed, Distressed, Disillusioned, Hopeful

Fresh from his impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last night, Vice President Joe Biden will be about ten minutes up the road from me today, in Baton Rouge to attend a community memorial service for the three law enforcement officers who were shot and killed here eleven days ago. You've all heard about it on the news. Officers Matthew Gerald, Montrell Jackson and deputy Brad Garafola were murdered by a Missouri man who drove here in a rented car for the express purpose of gunning down police officers.

July has been a terrible month for the Greater Baton Rouge community. The trouble started  on the 5th of July, when Baton Rouge Police shot a black man named Alton Sterling at close range. A viral video of that shooting made the necessity of the police action appear questionable at best. One day later, as outrage about the Sterling shooting grew, a new video surfaced, recorded by a remarkably self-controlled black woman immediately after her fiancĂ©, Philando Castile, was killed by police during a Minnesota traffic stop. The entire nation was shocked and saddened.

On the 7th of July I went to Walmart to buy groceries. My heart was heavy, and I felt reasonably certain everyone else in the store was feeling the same way. I wished I could talk to those strangers, especially the black ones, wished I could hug them, tell them how sad I felt, assure them that most white people are not racist. I believe that last statement to be true, but comments I read on social media make me wonder about the truth of it on an almost daily basis.

I didn't have those conversations, of course; I'm not that outgoing. Most of the black people I saw there had their eyes downcast, appearing to consciously avoid eye contact. They were the ones I most wanted to talk with, but I didn't. Others, mostly younger women, behaved as though it were just another day, nothing unusual about it all. I smiled at them and they smiled back. I exuded friendliness, wanting them to know I wasn't one of "those" white people, filled with hatred instilled in childhood. I've never felt more fake in my whole life. I smiled and exchanged pleasantries when all I really wanted to do was hold them close and cry.

There were protests in Baton Rouge almost every night after Alton Sterling was killed, protests in other cities across the country, too. My step-grandson, a sheriff's deputy, was called out to help keep order at local protests. Day after day, we feared for his well-being.

On July 10th, following a peaceful protest march in Dallas, Texas, a sniper ambushed law enforcement officers, killing five of them, wounding nine others. Our shocked nation wept, including many of those who had been protesting the night before. Most of them hadn't expected or intended for things to get so far out of control.

On Sunday, July 17th, about the time local civil unrest had settled down a small notch or two, the Baton Rouge officers were gunned down by an outsider who had no legitimate business here. It was almost impossible to believe.

Since then we've had vigils instead of protests, fundraisers instead of marches. I've watched three funerals, three processions of police cars and motorcycles, three instances of fire trucks with ladders raised to hoist an enormous American flag over the paths of the processions. I've cried with the sadness of it all and with the beauty of the tributes to the fallen officers, with the coming together of the community, the love demonstrated by citizens of all races.

In between watching news of killings, protests and funerals, I've watched TV coverage of both presidential campaign conventions. The speeches of one party leave me feeling hopeful and inspired; the other party's speeches fulfilled their intended purpose of instilling fear and distrust to motivate voters. Both campaigns appeal to vast numbers of citizens, making me shake my head in amazement that all of us--family, friends, neighbors, co-workers--manage to get along as well as we do when our world views differ so widely. That, too, gives me hope.

I've wanted to document this month's events for days now, but thoughts of what's happened always bring fresh tears, and I am so tired of crying. I'm writing about it now because I must. If my descendants one day read the stories I've written about my life, they need to know what kinds of things were happening in this nation in 2016. What kinds of things were still happening more than fifty years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They need to know I cared.

We've come so far. We have so much farther to go.

Monday, July 04, 2016


This morning I asked my daughters if they could remember what our family did to celebrate the 4th of July exactly forty years ago. Neither one could, of course, and they were astounded that I remember. As it happens, it's the only 4th of July ever that I can recall with any specificity. Even last year's holiday has escaped me.

On this day forty years ago, in 1976, America was celebrating the United States Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We lived in Farmingdale, New York, then. It was hot that summer. While many of our fellow Long Islanders spent the 4th at the beach, we headed off instead to the coolness of a second-run movie theater. We'd missed a blockbuster the summer before, and this was our chance to see what all the hoopla had been about.

At first we sat in near darkness, listening to the whispering of parents passing out candy brought from home, hearing the crinkling of candy wrappers and the tinkling of ice in paper cups, wishing everyone around us would be quiet so we could watch the previews. Then the movie started. and everyone did get quiet. Except for occasional audience-wide gasps and screams, they were quiet until the film ended.

That was the day we saw Jaws. Forty years later I only have to think about it for a moment to get shivers running up and down my spine.

Happy Independence Day to you! I hope you're having a great time with your family today. Don't eat the potato salad if it's sat too long in the heat, be careful if you're creating your own fireworks display, and be oh-so watchful if you're about to step into the ocean.

Monday, June 27, 2016

DNA? Do. Not. Ask!

Near the end of April, when had a sale on DNA testing, I decided to go for it. I mailed a tube of saliva to Ancestry and got the results a short five and a half weeks later. There were no surprises except that I'm more Irish than I knew. Given my love of all things Irish, I'm happy about  that.

Here's my "ethnicity estimate":

While I waited for the results to come in, I decided it was time to take the plunge and put my genealogy database online. I'd read several reports that the genealogy software I was using was not properly exporting files to Ancestry, so I didn't even try. I began entering names, dates and places one item at a time.

From the very beginning, I couldn't see my family information in tree form. I had recently become unable to load photos on Facebook and to view YouTube videos. Something was obviously wrong with my computer.

I plodded on. It was slow going, but I had time. I worked on my family tree every day, and every day I lost one more capability. Eventually, I could no longer even enter information into the Ancestry database.

My computer was seven years old, something of a record in my technological experience. After much consideration, I bought a new one--same brand, newest model--and began the process of setting it up like the one that's nearing death. What a nightmare!

I had two genealogy programs on the old computer. Neither one is compatible with the new computer's operating system. What's more, the manufacturers don't plan to issue any newer versions. I opted for a different program on the new computer. It works, but I don't like it much.

I've had two printers for years: an old laser printer that's economical for black and white prints and an all-in-one printer/scanner/copier for color printing. The old laser printer isn't compatible with the new computer, and I couldn't tell about the color printer because one of its six ink cartridges was empty, so it wouldn't work. I bought a new yellow cartridge to replace the empty one, then the printer gave me a message that the light magenta and light cyan cartridges had "expired" and the printer would not operate with expired cartridges. I made another trip to Walmart to buy ink cartridges. They only had four of the six color cartridges. You want to guess which two colors were missing? Yep, light cyan and light magenta. Days later, after all the new ink had been installed, after an hour of tinkering with cables and printer drivers, the expensive-to-use color printer now works with the new computer. The laser printer still works with the old computer.

My attempts to follow directions and transfer my email mailboxes and messages to the new computer were dismal failures. For now I'm checking email on the old computer until I can summon the mental fortitude to call tech support services.

In the meantime, I'm still entering one name at a time into Ancestry's database. So far I've accounted for about one-eighth of the people on my suddenly obsolete software, with about another seven thousand to go. The good news is I can now view my ancestors in brightly colored tree form. The bad news is I don't seem to have inherited the luck of all those Irish ancestors.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What I've Been Reading

Holy moly, Mama, I've missed most of the month of May! Time seems to pass so much more quickly than it did when I was young. Some days I enjoy that phenomenon; other days, not so much.  

May has been a busy month--if one doesn't equate busyness with productivity. I've done a lot of genealogy housekeeping, a lot of TV-series-finale watching, and (the best part) a lot of reading.

Let's look at the books and call this a post:

Out of the Shadows
by Diane Greenwood Muir

Vignettes - Out of the Shadows
by Diane Greenwood Muir

Unexpected Riches
by Diane Greenwood Muir

A Funeral for an Owl
by Jane Davis

Finding Jake
by Bryan Reardon

The Dirty Parts of the Bible
by Sam Torode

by James Patterson and David Ellis

The Mermaids Singing
by Lisa Carey

The Abduction
Mark Gimenez

Homesick (non-fiction)
by Sela Ward

The Drowning Game
by LS Hawker

The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society
by Darien Gee

To read a description and reviews of any of these books,
click on its description above.