BACKYARD CRITTERS

I like the outside. Nothing depresses me more than being trapped in the house as the rain or snow falls. Working in the yard is a blessing to me, and I’d stay there all the time were I given the opportunity. The only drawbacks to being in the yard or the wooded areas at the side our house are the critters and creatures that I’ve encountered.
The first spring after we moved into the house we’d built was spent getting the yard in shape. I threw out grass seed after one snow covered the land in February, and to my surprise, I had a thick, lush stand of grass out back. When enough time had passed to give the grass a chance to take root, I pulled out the lawn mower and prepared to complete my first mowing.
The grass was high, and the mowing was slow to prevent the mower from bogging down. I watched to make sure no roots or sticks were in the path. All of a sudden,
I saw a wiggle in the grass. Such quick movement startled me, and I almost lost my left toes to the lawn mower blade. The movement continued for a couple more feet and left no doubt that a snake was the creator.
I hate snakes with a passion. In fact, the only good snake is a dead one that has been squished flat by the wheels of a semi-truck. My first act was retrieving a hoe from the shed, and I stalked that critter and chopped him into several pieces. Then I went inside and replaced flimsy shoes with work boots. A person can never tell when one of those giant snakes will try to take a bite out of a foot or leg.
One evening a few years later, I met up with another of God’s creatures. Our house has a one-car garage. My vehicle is parked under a carport at the end of a second driveway. I used to smoke but wanted to hide doing so from the children. (I convinced myself that the smell of smoke was easily hidden and that the kids would never know of my terrible smoking habit.) My favorite place to “burn one” was under that carport, and on a spring evening I exited the house to do that. Night had already arrived, and darkness swallowed up the carport and my car in which the cigarettes were placed.
I reached for the door of the car as my foot nudged something. I supposed it was a cat that cuddled around
the car for warmth. Along with my cigarettes, I retrieved a flashlight and shined it on the creature below. Instead of a cat, a possum stood only a couple of feet from me, and it was not happy about being interrupted. I got a good look at those razor-sharp teeth and heard a warning hiss. I broke into a full run back to the house and suffered a nicotine fit the rest of the evening. There was no way I was going back out where that menacing little marsupial might attack.
Snoop was just a pup still, and he loved to go outside to walk the yard and protect his territory. On this occasion, he began yipping before I could get the door open. I told him to relax until the door opened. With just a slit to get through, he shot outside and tore around the corner. I was behind him when I heard a yelp, not an attack bark, and immediately smelled the fragrance of a skunk that had been annoyed.  I prayed that Snoop hadn’t been sprayed, but he met me
quickly with his tail between his legs and a yellowish substance on his face and back.
The skunk hit the dog dead center, and for the next two or more hours, I washed Snoop in shampoo and tomato juice. By the way, it’s a lie that tomato juice kills skunk smell. Time does, not tomato juice. In about six weeks, my little dog was tolerable to be around.

My yard is my retreat. Evidently, it serves the same purpose for critters in the Ball Camp area. I’ll tolerate the four-legged ones, but snakes will have to find another place to nest unless they want me to cultivate them with a hoe. 

FIRST CHRISTIAN SURVIVES THE PAIN OF LOSS

Not many eyes were dry in the congregation. No, the minister hadn’t just delivered a hellfire and brimstone sermon. Instead, folks were gathered to grieve their loss, and it was one that cut to the quick of each person’s heart.
First Christian Church not more than a month ago celebrated the 100th anniversary of being located at the corner of Gay Street and Fifth Avenue. It’s that church with the giant columns that passersby can see from Interstate 40. On Sunday, June 21, the members held their last church service in that structure.
For 30 years, which is a relatively short time in comparison to some members of the church, Amy and I were members of FCC. It was after being adopted into that family that we began our own. The memories of that church are many.
I remember the day that Lacey was christened at FCC. She squalled with full voice throughout the service while my mother and Amy’s mother and Papa stood with us. Not long after, Dallas, too, was christened. It was a fitting place for my children to first be introduced to the love of God and those who call themselves Christians.
Doug Meister came to First Christian Church, and before long, we became best friends. Somehow, we gee-hawed well enough. After a few years in Knoxville, Doug moved to accept a position with a church in Louisville, KY, but we are still close. If I call or he does, we fall into the same easy rhythm that our friendship has always held, and it’s as if we saw each other daily.
I was a terrible athlete…no, I wasn’t even good enough to be called and athlete, but FCC gave me the first chance to participate in softball on a men’s team. In fact, I played first base and didn’t commit too many errors. The teasing was brutal, and my best buddy Doug commented that I was the only person he’d ever seen turn a homerun into a triple. After those games, several of us would retreat to Roger’s Place for hotdogs and beer. As a group, we licked our wounds in defeat of exaggerated our heroics in victory.
Christmases were special at FCC. For years, “Uncle Tim” told children the story of Christ’s birth, and our family was chosen a couple of times to light a candle on the Advent wreath. The youth decorated the sanctuary with garland, wreaths, and Chrismons. Christmas Eve services made the holiday even more special to folks.
Nothing compares to memories of Lacey’s wedding at First Christian Church. The service was breathtaking in the beautiful old sanctuary. What better place could there be for me to walk my little girl down the aisle than the in the place where our family had grown in our love of God and for each other? To this day, I can close my eyes and see each moment of the wedding, and I especially love the photo of Lacey standing outside close to the historic tree in the front lawn.
A few years ago, the membership began to dwindle, mostly due to deaths and families moving. The old building began eating more and more cash as roofs were repaired, HVAC systems were replaced, and wall plaster was reapplied. At that time, the recommendation came to move, but many life-long members weren’t ready to take that step.
Now, the remaining congregation knows it must leave. Doing will be difficult at best. They feel a sense of abandoning the building, its history, and the souls that poured so much into the energy of First Christian Church. So, they mourn the loss of an old friend and familiar place.

Still, the wonderful message of Christianity is resurrection. In this case, First Christian Church has its new life in a church at 3801 Basswood Road. That’s in the West Haven community. The congregation’s rebirth began with a Neighborhood block party this past Saturday. The doors to the new location of FCC swing wide open to those in the neighborhood and all others who seek a loving, caring church. Maybe you should give them a trial visit.

SUNBURN

My grandson Madden came to Knoxville during the Memorial Day weekend. He pulled off his shirt on Friday evening, and his shoulders and arms were fiery. It was the boy’s first ever taste of sunburn.
His parents have been good at slathering him up with sun screen, but this time, Madden and a pack of little boys were too involved in outdoor activities to remember to apply the stuff. I know how easily that happens as a kid.
In Ball Camp, a group of boys spent a great deal of time together during the summer months. We’d play games of baseball or tackle football. No one ever took out time to coat himself with Coppertone. Instead, boys relied on a thick coating of dirt to protect their skin from the sun.
Jim and I managed to get a yearly sunburn as we weeded the strawberries. We’d also turn red as we took hand clippers and cut every weed around the foundation of the house and several flower gardens. Later in life, we mowed the yard and toasted ourselves as we either cut the grass or raked it up in piles.
We also managed to bake ourselves on vacations. A week in the mountains each year did the trick. As soon as we’d finish breakfast, it was off to the river. There we stayed all day and swam, dove, and played. By the end of the first day, shoulders and legs sizzled. Our first trip to the beach came when Jim and I were ten. Cousin Charlie’s family also traveled with us to Treasure Island, Florida. Playing in waves and searching for shells took our full attention. Not until we tried to rest in the evening did the scarlet that covered our backs, legs and love-handle hand out plenty of pain.
In high school, I scorched myself on two painfully memorable occasions. At the end of the last half-day of school, I traveled with Bill Burns and others to Big Ridge Park. We spread out towels and sat on the grass. The others passed a bottle around and took some of the contents. I didn’t want to seem uncool, so I also partook. I spread a thick coat of baby oil on my skin and felt secure in thinking I’d protected myself from a sunburn. What I later discovered was that spreading the stuff on me was about the same thing as dropping a piece of meat into an iron skillet containing a glob of Crisco. I was fried to a crisp.
I spent the afternoon of my 18th birthday working a Burger King. My jobs there included mowing and plowing the back plot of grass, changing spark plugs in my boss’s car, and, on that day, mopping the red plastic shingles that covered the roof of the building. That evening, the candles on the cake at the surprise birthday party put off only a fraction of the heat that came from my burned back, scalp, , and neck.
Those were glorious times, all too painful, but glorious all the same. These days, however, I have a standing appointment with the doctor to scour my skin for precancerous and cancerous spots. A few years ago, the doctor discovered a spot that contained squamous cells. That led to another appointment where the doctor sliced my neck and dug her way to China as she removed anything that might lead to worse conditions. My hair has thinned enough so that my scalp burns after short periods in the sun, and just recently, the doctor found another place on the side of my head that contains squamous cells. In June, I will have part of my hair shaved away so that the doctor can once again dig. This time I’ve asked for something to keep me from feeling so squeamish.
What we do as unsuspecting children and young adults sometimes comes back to bite us in the butts. Years of exposure to the sun then has led to some uncomfortable times now. I love the outdoors as
much as any person. Now, I wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat. I’m through with inviting skin cancer to a free lunch. Make sure you protect your babies and yourself against the harmful rays of the sun. I suppose it’s true that no tan is worth the misery that comes from fear about melanoma. Lather up!


HONEYSUCKLE NECTAR

The week brought warm weather; in fact, it was downright hot. Mother’s Day weekend found my family in the pool and cooling our heels and enjoying each other’s company. Anyone who was outside and who had a nose could smell the sweet scents of honeysuckle. Even at work, the blooms filled the air with perfume and reminded my friend Roy Thomas of things from the past. We talked about the wonderful tastes that come with this time of year.
Roy asked if I ever enjoyed tasting honeysuckle sap. I shook my head yes as my mind raced back to childhood. The vines were thick in the woods behind our house and on the barbed wire fence around the field next to us. Jim and I would walk to the blooms and enjoy the smell; it still signals our birthday is close at hand. We’d pick blooms and then pull those little strings from the blooms and suck the nectar from them. Not many desserts made by moms are any better. The problem is that too little sweetness comes from each flower.
At other times, we’d search for those little yellow flowers that came in bunches in our yard. I think the name is oxalis weed, also known as yellow sorrel. At any rate, we’d find those tiny flowers and munch of them. They were sour but tasty. The heat of the summer days quickly baked them until they disappeared.
Although they weren’t things to eat, the stems that a group of boys pulled from bales of hay made excellent chewing items. We’d sit on the bales in Mr. Long’s field and goof off or hold our club meetings. Each boy would select a straw from the bundle and gnaw on it. The only times they came out of mouths were when spitting was necessary.
Some things weren’t eaten, but they did manage to wind in our mouths. One of the worst was the puff balls that towered above dandelions. What should have been a fun activity of blowing the seeds into the air became a choking event when a boy took in a deep breath to close to the ball. At other times, we boys played baseball games, and our panting with mouths opened usually ended with gnats stuck in our teeth or throats.
Before long, fruits began to hang on limbs and vines. We were fortunate enough to have grapes vines and apple, cherry, and pear trees. Also, Daddy put out a strawberry patch. Jim and I ate grapes while standing at the vines, at least we did until wasps and bees arrived to battle us for them. Any memory of strawberries wasn’t necessarily positive because of the back-breaking, sun burned work of
weeding the plants. Yes, we ate our shares of half-ripe apples, and we lost some of baby teeth with bites into rock-hard pears. Those young fruits proved to be excellent ammunition as grenades in imaginary play as soldiers fighting Germans and Japanese. I remember the taste of those cherries and, to this day, still try to find the same flavor in ones I buy.
The best taste of all during the warm-weather season comes from blackberries. Mother took us on several excursions. I fretted over snakes that might appear or the thorns that left scratches on any uncovered body part. More concern should have been devoted to the chiggers that always found several places to burrow under my skin and bring on an itch that couldn’t be scratched.
Still, those blackberries were prizes. We’d pick one and eat one. Mother always doubled our output because she stayed busy and didn’t spend time scrarfing them down. The cobblers and pies and jars of jelly that came from the berries kept us fed throughout the coldest days of winter.

Yes, Roy, I remember the nectar from honeysuckle. Thanks for reminding me of it and for all the other delicious things that Nature gives us when spring appears and as summer wears on. Warm weather is my favorite and so are the things that tasted so good then and now.