Harrison Scott Key

book covers for Harrison Scott Key's three books

Meeting the author

Roughly nine years ago, I attended a reading by a local author at the Book Lady’s Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia.  I heard about the reading through Facebook. The book sounded interesting. At the appointed time, I left the slow life of the island for the hustle of the city and the struggle for parking places.  Upon entering the bookstore, I was excited to see a stack of yellow paperbacks with deer antlers stacked by the register.  “Hot dang,” I said to no one in particular, “Patrick McManus has a new book out.”  

Then I saw the author’s name, Harrison Scott Key: the dude doing the reading…  The air left my sails. Who was he? Key’s book utilized the same color scheme as had McManus. The antlers had me all excited..  

Then the reading started.  Harrison began by handing out PBRs. (That’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, in case you don’t know, the cheap beer from college days that’s now back in fashion).  Harrison wasn’t taking any chances with his audience.  Lubing us up, he soon had us laughing.  By the time he was half way through the reading, I knew I would be buying his book.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, pushing aside two other books that I was reading. His book was as good those written by McManus .

A few years later, I was at the party for Key’s second book reveal. It was held in the gardens at the Ships of the Seas museum in Savannah. He had definitely outgrown the “Book Lady Bookstore” as there were several hundred in attendance including Key’s three daughters. Not only did he sign my book, one of his daughters drew me a picture on the title page. Since I no longer live near Savannah, I was unable to be at his last book kickoff. It’s also his only book that’s not signed! Below, in addition to reviewing Key’s recent book, I included reviews of his first two books which I posted in earlier blogs.

Harrison Scott Key, How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told 

(New York: Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2023), 307 pages, no images. 

I finished the book a month ago and spent a lot of time thinking about it. How to Stay Married is an incredibly honest book. Key is honest about his desire to remain married despite his wife Lauren’s infidelity. He’s honest about mistakes he made. And he’s honest about his wife’s baggage. As for the latter, I might offer one more suggestion to Key, if he wants to stay married long-term, “Don’t write the book!” But it’s too late for that advice and Key has given us his story in a way that shows how messy our lives can be.

How to Stay Married can be very painful. It hits at places I’ve been in my life. It forced me to realize I haven’t always done everything, I should do to make the best out of relationships. Yet, the book is very funny. Key is a modern-day Mark Twain (and some of his insights into the Old Testament are very Twainesque). It’s an insightful book into human relationships, the church, scripture, and how our families influence our lives.

The Key’s move to Savannah when Harrison accepted a position at Savannah College of Art and Design. In time, they have three daughters, become active in Independent Presbyterian Church, and live in a quaint and comfortable home in a pleasant neighborhood. They become friends with neighbors and their children play with other kids. Unsuspectingly, Chad and Lauren have an affair. Chad is married and the father to some of the neighborhood kids. Both families have (or had) cookouts together. Key, who changes the names of key actors in the story, portrays this man in a comically plain manner. He wonders what his wife ever saw in such a boring ordinary person. 

Lauren wants out. Harrison wants them to work on their marriage and fears what will happen to their children.

Harrison seeks help from the pastor of his church, whom he names “Hairshirt.” He tells him his situation, in the hope to learn how he offer suggestions to save his marriage.  The pastor, not hearing Harrison’s plea, says his wife will have to confess and repent or be excommunication. This shocks Harrison, who imagines pitchforks being brought out. He wants to reconcile with his wife, not a witch trial. The pastor is from the Presbyterian Church in America, a very conservative branch of Presbyterianism. Harrison names him “Hairshirt” (think of those strict ascetic self-flagellating medieval monks). Afterwards, they leave the church and find a new church home.  In addition to encourage the reader to fight for a marriage, the book could also be used as an example of how not to provide pastoral care. 

While Harrison is estranged (at first just moving to separate rooms and later his wife moving to an apartment), he reads the Bible and provides interesting commentary on it. He spends time searching his and his wife’s past. His wife was from a broken home. Her father, also a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, abandoned his wife when Lauren was a child. Further turmoil came from their marriage. With Lauren’s mother dying of cancer, they move up their date in the hope she’d be able to be present. But she dies before the wedding. Their marriage begins in a rocky manner, but eventually things leveled out, or so he thought. 

Later in the story, after Lauren moves out, she realizes what she’s throwing away. She calls Harrison, who rushes over to her apartment and packs up her stuff. They also find places Lauren can live to keep Chad from seeking her out. By the book’s end, Harrison and Lauren are slowly rebuilding their marriage. 

As I said earlier, this is an insightful and extremely honest book. We see all sides of the main characters, good and bad. At times, I thought Harrison’s character was overly virtuous, but I had to admire the effort he made to save the covenant of his marriage. Thinking back 40 years, I wondered what would have happened had I been so determined. Harrison reminds us that marriage is often difficult and requires work. It would have been easy for him to have thrown in the towel and found someone else. While tempted, but he stood fasted and remained open for reconciliation because he loved his wife and wanted the best for his children. 

I am glad I read this book and recommend it to others. 

Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: a memoir 

(New York: Harper, 2015), 336 pages plus 15 bonus pages including an essay by the author on memoirs along with additional information about the author.

The World’s Largest Man is about Key’s father and his own quest to become a father.  When Key was a child in elementary school, his father moved the family from Memphis, where you went to church to learn about the dangers of premarital sex). They moved to Mississipp

\i (where you went to church to engage in such sex).  (19).  According to Key, Mississippi is where crazy people believe what can’t be shot should be baptized (16), and children often learn child-birth before long division. (37) Here, Key was taught the ways of the woods.  

One early adventure was dove hunting at daybreak in which he realized that problem with the proverb about the early rising bird getting the worm.  They also get murdered. (32) Some readers may be offended by Key’s frankness concerning sex. In a few occasions he hints at the involvement of livestock.  I wasn’t overly shocked as I once had a boss from Mississippi named Ron. One night after a few beers where he told us about a boy from his school…  I’ve been through Mississippi, but Ron’s stories had always reminded me there was no need to linger.  Key has reminded me again of the wisdom of passing through and keeping your windows rolled up.   

Key keeps the humorous zingers coming as he tells about deer hunting, fighting at school, his first love, football and baseball.  He also shares about his father’s tough discipline and his mother’s love.  At times, as the reader, I felt contempt for his father. And then, at other times, I couldn’t help but admire him.  Key’s old man went out of his way to help children. He continued coaching little league baseball and football long after his boys had grown up and moved on.  Key always felt he was not living up to his father’s standards (something most boys feel, or at least I did).  

After high school, there is a gap and Key picks up his story when he is in grad school and is married.  He worries what his new bride will think of his family and there are some funny episodes around her first visits to Mississippi for holidays.  Once they have children, he sees another side of his father.   His old man loves grandchildren.  Eventually, Key is able to encourage his parents to move to Savannah where he is a professor at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design).  A month later, his father dies of a heart attack.  

In the second part of the book, we see Key’s struggling to be a man and protecting his wife and three daughters.  Having grown up around guns, he marries a woman who wasn’t a “gun person. He leaves his guns with his parents.  One night, he arms himself with a serrated kitchen knife to check out a possible bad guy.  As Key says, “it would have come in handy had he come across an angry Bundt cake.”  (273)  After his father drops off his old shotgun and they experience a break-in, he obtains shells for the shotgun.  But then, he realizes it was a foolish idea, He adds motion sensor lights outside of his house and an alarm system.  

The last part of the book may not carry the humor of the earlier part of the book, but it has an honest feel as Key struggles to learn what it means to be good husband and a good father.  There is a tenderness to how he writes about his family and his aging father.   Key recalls the old truism from the country that things can kill you can also make you feel alive (238), but a few pages later he acknowledges that what really makes us alive is love. (246).  This is a book written in love, which is why I recommend it.  McManus has some good competition as does other Mississippi writers such as Willie Morris.  

I also liked the supplemental information provided at the end of the book.  These include tips about writing about one’s family, an essay on memoirs (a term Key detests), more biographical information, and his top ten list of funny writers of which I’ve only read four (Charles Portis, Douglas Adams, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain).   Key acknowledge at the front of the book that he had changed many of the names (since most of them have guns).

Harrison Scott Key, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir

(New York: Harpers, 2018) , 347 pages including five appendices and no illustrations except an ink figure of a dog drawn by Beetle, the author’s daughter, while I waited for him to sign my book.

 Over the years I have enjoyed reading memoirs by authors as I learn how they approach the craft and gleam advice for myself. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Eudora Welty,’s One’s Writer’s Beginning, Robert Laxalt’s, Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life, and Dee Brown’s When the Century was Young are books that come to mind.

I’ve also read many “how-to” books by authors who tell us how to approach the craft. Without looking at my shelf, I can recall Stephen King, “On Writing; William Zinsser, On Writing Well; Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing; and John McPhee, Draft #4. All these authors of memoirs and how-to books have an impressive list of publications under their belt when they sat down to give advice on writing. Harrison Scott Key decided he’d write his how-to memoir immediately following the publication of his first book. But then, his first book won the Thurber Prize.

 I enjoyed reading Congratulations, Who Are You Again? even though I am not sure I would have called this a memoir. I’m not sure what it is.

Part of the book reads like a “how-to” manual for becoming famous and having a best seller. Another part of the book is the author’s quest to find discover his life’s purpose as he charges through much of his 20s and 30s like Don Quixote. Part of this books appears to be a sure-fire way to receive a summons to divorce court. Another part of this book is  Mr. Key’s depository for lists. And just in case you didn’t have your fill of lists within the text, Key fills his appendices with lists. What is it about all these lists? I was wondering why he didn’t include a grocery list, but concluded that maybe his wife, out of gratitude for now having more than one toilet in the house, has volunteered to shop for the family.

My hunch is that Mr Key’s lists are actually passwords. What a better way to keep them close at hand than to have a book he can pull off his shelf and quickly recall his password for Facebook or Twitter or maybe even First Chatham Bank. And, one final “what is it…” What is it about depressed people and pelicans? Key speaks of his interest in these “freakish and ungainly” birds while depressed. Personally, I find pelicans graceful. A former professor of mine, Donald McCullough, while dealing with depression, published a book titled The Wisdom of Pelicans. Like my former professor, I find pelicans graceful, not freakish. I’m not sure what’s wrong with Mr. Key. Maybe I should give up watching pelican’s fish, but that sounds too depressing.

That said, this is a funny book. And writing a funny book is one of Mr. Key’s life goals. He’s now achieved this goal twice, first with The World’s Largest Man, and now with Congratulations. Although Key acknowledges his indebtedness to a host of authors, he never mentioned the fabulous 1940 movie, “Sullivan’s Travels,” staring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. In “Sullivan’s Travels,” McCrea plays a movie producer who wants to make a movie about the seriousness of the Great Depression in order to move people to respond in compassion. But after a misfortune, he has an epiphany and realizes people also need to laugh. Sullivan learns this wisdom after at the end of the film. Key comes this conclusion on page 49. 

 My third complaint about Key’s writing (my first complaint was his lists, my second was his rude remarks about pelicans) is his overuse of misdirects. Key describes the great things that follow his things such as being published. Following such good news, Key rambles on about all the invitations to TV and radio shows to make an appearance. He seems to have a healthy crush on NPR’s Terry Gross. Others ask him to give keynote speeches. He’s also mugged by admirers on Savannah’s streets.

Just when the reader is about to believe there is a god who awards hard work, the reader is redirected into what really happened. Usually nothing. The exception is an actual mugging on Savannah’s streets. Actually, Key never wrote about being mugged, but it could happen. These redirects were funny the first 57 times this reader fell for this comic technique, but the 58th time was just too much. As I was coming to the end of the book, I thought that if there was one more redirect, I’d rip the book apart and toss it out the window. Thankfully, being near the end, I was reading lists and it’s pretty hard to redirect a reader from a grocery to a household chore list. I never knew lists could be funny.

  Complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and laughed a lot. My biggest take-away from Mr. Key is that writing is like giving birth. I’ve heard that before, but Key attaches his unique twist that refreshes this platitude: “Writing is like giving birth, and it is, it is just like giving birth, in the Middle Ages, when all the babies died.” (114). Writing is hard work, and such hard work in this case produces a book that the reader can easily read and enjoy.

 And one final comment for clarification.  I am not the minister who accosted Keys in a restaurant asking to be included in his next book. Such a request is foolish for if Keys says the things he does about his wife and children, whom he obviously adores, what would he say about a coveting minister. Of course, the minister did find himself in the book, only he’s not identified. 

Learning more about the Okefenokee

Photo of book, "Suwannee River"

Cecile Hulse Matschat, Suwannee River: Strange Green Land, A Descriptive Joureny through the Enchanted Okefenokee (1938, 1966, Athens, GA: University Press, 1980), 296 pages including a bibliography, glossary, bird and flora list, an index. Black and white drawings illustrate each chapter.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore several years ago. It was the perfect book to pack along on my recent ramblings in and around the Okefenokee. Originally published in the late 1930s as a part of a “River in America” series, the University of Georgia Press republished it

I have read many books about rivers. I enjoy an author taking me down a steam, telling me about the river, its history, along with the flora and fauna and wildlife around its water. This book does that in a fresh and unique manner. The author, an “outlander” from New York. She, heads into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for the headwaters of the Suwanee River in the 1930s. Drawing on her interest and knowledge of plants, she becomes known as the “Plant Woman,” and gains the confidence of the people who live in the swamp. She then writes about the swamp and river through the eyes of the native residents of the swamp. Not only will the reader learn about the region’s natural history but also gains an appreciation of the stories of the swamp. These stories are told in the swamper’s own dialect. 

The largest part of this book involves the Plant Woman’s stay with those living in the swamp. Here, we also learn the folk heritage of the swamp. Instead of a scientific understanding of the region, we learn of how the beavers and the native people had developed a truce, but when a new chief rose, he decided to make war on the beavers. In retaliation, the beavers flooded the land and abandoned it forever (there are no beavers in the swamp. We learn of tall tales of the ingenuity of who lived in the swamp. One “swamper” wedded bees and lightening bugs, doubling his production of honey because the insects could now work 24 hours a day. 

Matschat asks to see a still. They blindfolded her and take her by boat to a remote landing. There, she sees a still in operation and learns about moonshine. She introduces us to the “snake woman” who has a pet kingsnake. Some of boys catch a large rattlesnake with 21 rattlers They set up a fight with the kingsnake. Everyone knew the kingsnake would win, but the betting was on how long the rattlesnake could last against its arch enemy. She’s present as they boil off cane squeezings into syrup and learns about “old Christmas.” She tells of people’s encounter with the wilds. This included wild hogs, bears, and sandhill cranes. We also learn how they cared for each other. We are provided with recipes for delights like sweet potato biscuits along with the words to songs sung to pass time.  Her time in the swamp ends with a wedding. 

After her time in the swamp, she takes boat down the Suwannee River. Here, she experiences a variety of orchids and meets those who live by the river. She spends some time on old cotton plantations, with African Americans left behind after the Civil War. There, they eke out a living from farming, hunting, and fishing. Some may find this section difficult as Matschat tells of older members speaking fondly of slave days. This doesn’t ring politically correct today, but she found the former slaves still living in their cabins as the old mansions of the masters were rotting away and considered haunted. 

One of the stories an old man tells the children is about the rabbit. Supposedly, the rabbit used to have a beautiful long tail. Noah’s son, Ham, in the ark, spent his time during the rain playing the banjo. When his strings broke, Noah suggested he take the tail of the rabbits to create new strings. He did, which is why rabbits now have bobbed tails.

When she gets to the mouth of the Suwannee, she takes a boat down to Cedar Key. There, she meets a more international community of Cuban and Portuguese fishermen and hears more tales of pirates and hurricanes. She leaves her journey behind, taking an airplane from Cedar Key back north. For all her journey, you’d thought she was in the 19th or 18th centuries. Only here at the end we’re reminded that her experiences were in the 1930s.  I found this a delightful book and highly recommend it if you can find a copy.  

If one wants to learn more about the actual history of the Okefenokee, I suggest reading Trembling Earth. I first reviewed it in 2015 and have republished my review below. It’s academic and approaches the swamp’s folklore from a more objective perspective. She of how it was a refugee for runaway slaves, native Americans, deserters during the Civil War, and outlaws. She also tells of human efforts to drain the swamp, which became a folly.

Opening pages of book
A look inside at the opening page of the book
Photo of book, Trembling Earth

Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography, and a few photos.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border. Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to this status, the swamp existed as a barrier. Nelson calls it an “edge space.” The name, “Okefenokee,” comes out of a Native American term meaning “trembling earth.” This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp. Since there is only a little “solid” high ground inside the swamp, few made their home there.  

Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp. The interior was only probed for hunting. This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia. The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South. 

Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage. Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves. At first, Georgia didn’t allow slavery. However, Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans. That, along with the need for new areas to expand rice plantations , a push was made to extend slavery. Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp before making their ways south. Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men. At first, they avoided conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War by hiding in the forbidding swamp. Later, “crackers” who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land. 

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to “conquer” the swamp. The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean. It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming. This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built “mud lines” (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home. These “crackers” or “swampers,” both worked for and often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who attempted to change their environment. As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp were taken. This lead to the creation of a government protected wildlife refugee in the 1930s.  

Using a historicity which she labels “ecolocalism,” Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways. These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists. This book is a distillation of the author’s dissertation. Although edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject. Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp. This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft. She does draw upon many of the group’s stories which makes the book very readable.  

twilight in the Okefenokee
Winter twilight in the swamp (photo taken in January 2017)

A stop at the Congaree

Title slide "A Stop at the Congaree" with photo of a kayak in the swamp
Cedar Creek

As I hadn’t planned on returning home until Monday, I decided to add another stop on my return. I have wanted to visit Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. The park is one of the nation’s newest, established in 2003. It’s also one of the least visited parks in the nation. The park consists of river bottom land along the Congaree River, which tends to flood.  A few weeks before I arrived, 80% of the park was underwater. While I was there, the water within the park was once again rising. 

Cedar Creek flows through the middle of the park, paralleling the Congaree River, which forms the park’s southern boundary. To the north, the land rises above the lowland, creating an area ideal for longleaf pine forest. Sadly, there are few longleaf, but I’ll get to that later.  

Leaving Folkston, Georgia, I determined to stay off the freeways. I followed US 301, through small towns in South Georgia, Nahauta and Jessup. This was familiar territory from my time living in South Georgia. The GPS on my phone drove me nuts as it kept trying to lure me back on I-95. The GPS even said it was the safe route as the National Weather Station reported flooding on other routes. I found myself rerouted to the interstate.  This I discovered this when I arrived in Hinesville. Turning the GPS off, I take a road that cuts through Fort Stewart, and picked up 301 again.  I drive through Claxton (the world’s fruitcake capital) and Statesboro and Sylvania, where I stopp for a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant.  While the rivers are high, they are nowhere near cresting over the bridges.

Crossing the Savannah River on an old bridge, I enter South Carolina. As I drive on, I listen to Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost, which is a history of economic speculation.  Traveling through towns like Allendale and Bamberg, who appear to have long passed their better days gives me time to ponder what happens when an economic bubble bursts.  I passed through Orangeburg, probably the largest city that I passed (Statesville might be larger, but I only skirted around it). 

When I crossed Intestate 26, running from Charleston to Columbia, I stop and grabb a burger for later, knowing that I didn’t feel much like cooking. 

Giant Loblolly Pine

I arrive at the Congaree National Park’s Longleaf Campsite at dusk. It’s a walk-in campsite, so I lung my waterproof bag containing my hammock, tarp, and sleeping bag a few hundred feet to my assigned site. I quickly set up my hammock, for there was heavy lightning to the north. But the storm took another path and by the time I was set to withstand the storm, the lightning has disappeared. 

I then set out to explore. The waning moon, only a few days after full, rose and offered plenty of defused light. I hiked the longleaf trail to the Visitor’s Center. Of course, everything was closed, but in the darkness, I came to understand that the name of my campsite and the trail to the Center was aspirational. I was camping and hiking under loblolly pines, the type of pines loved by paper companies. When the old growth longleaf were cut, they were replanted with loblollies, as they grow faster. The loblollies have shallower roots than the longleaf, who grow deep roots before they grow tall.  The only longleaf I’d seen in the dark were a few youthful plants near the outhouses. 

Returning to my campsite, it begins to drizzle. I retreat into my hammock and read a few chapters of Cecile Hulse Matschat’s The Suwanee: Strange Green Land, before falling asleep to the sound of rain. It rained off and on throughout the night. 

Coffee pot on my stove
(inside the fire pit because of the wind)

While I had enough water for the evening, I have to go find water for breakfast. I hike back to the Visitor’s Center and fill a couple of liter bottles. Coming back, I perk a pot of coffee and make some oatmeal. The wind slips through the pines as I enjoy breakfast. In honor of the Christian Sabbath, read several Psalms and commentaries in Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms. The sun burns the fog and clouds away. Along with the wind, my tarp dries by the time I finish breakfast. I pack up a head back to the Visitors Center where most of the trails originate. 

Boardwalk with evidence of recent flooding

The park has an amazing 2 ½ mile long boardwalk that takes you deep into the cypress lowlands. At places, the water is just below the walking path. I can see where, a few weeks ago, the water crested over the boardwalk.  When I get to the trail to the river, I take it, but only make it about a half mile before the path is blocked by running water. I return to the boardwalk.

Along the way, I pass one of the largest loblolly pines I’ve seen. It’s huge. This is the natural location for such trees, as they tolerate water around their base better than the longleaf pines. These trees are obviously old growth and this one next to the boardwalk is thought to be the largest pine in South Carolina. 

Water moving into bottomland. The rotten trees create bird habitat

These bottomland swamps, populated with cypress, loblollies, holly, and tupelo (gum) trees remind me of the swamps I started exploring as a teenager in Eastern North Carolina. While there is some similarity to the Okefenokee, it’s also different, especially with the amount of tupelo. After hiking about 4 miles, I make it back to my car and drive to the boat landing on Cedar Creek. I must get one more paddle in before driving home.  

I eat lunch at the boat launch on the edge of the National Park boundary, a few miles from the Visitor’s Center. From the number of vehicles, it seems there are many others on the water, and a few are hiking, even though much of the trails are underwater. As I’m putting in, I speak with a guide who is bringing back a couple of patrons from a paddle. The water is high. He informs me that you can only make it about a mile upstream and three miles downstream. I head out, paddling upstream against the hard current for about 30 minutes, till I arrive at a place I can go no further without pulling my boat over a log. Then, I turn around and make it back to the takeout in only 10 minutes. 

I continue going downstream for a few miles, passing many boaters struggling to fight the current as they paddle back to the takeout. This water is naturally blackish, but with the silt from the rains, it’s milk chocolate brown. As I turn around and paddle upstream, I pass many of those in small kayaks still fighting to get back to their takeout. My boat, 18 feet long, is easier to paddle against the current. I also read the water better, and am able to stay out of the fastest current. 

One of the local paddlers from Columbia is impressed with my sea kayak and asks me all kinds of questions as he helps me load it on the car. He’d come down from the state capitol for a day trip and had never paddled this area. As we talk, we realize that we have probably raced against each other. He used to crew on a friend’s boat out of the Savannah Yacht Club and raced in many of the regattas I have also raced in. 

A little after 3, I’m loaded up and heading north, driving the backroads of South Carolina through the Sandhill region of the state. In an old tree in a pond next to the road, I spot a bald eagle, I slow down, but there is no place to pull over. The car behind me honks his horn and gives me the “Hawaiian good luck sign” as he passes. The bird takes off. I have no idea what kind of hurry he was in, but he missed seeing a beautiful bird. As I enter North Carolina, the light fades. I cut over and take Interstate 77 toward home. Stopping only for dinner and gas, I arrive home a little after nine. 

Selfie taken on Cedar Creek

Coming Home to Pittsburgh, 1987

Title slide with photos taken from the Capitol Limited along the Potomac River in winter

This is a follow-up story to the one I posted before Christmas, when I wrote about my first long distant train trip from Pittsburgh to Florida and the only train wreck I’ve experienced. Click hereto read the story. Click here to read about my visit to Pittsburgh last summer. 

New Years Day 1987

Soon after the conductor checked me in and shortly after pulling out of the DC Station, I headed to the lounge car for a beer and a sandwich for dinner. In a corner booth, several obviously intoxicated guys played cards. I sat diagonally across from them, in the only open seat. Across from me, another conductor did paperwork. We exchanged greetings. He went back to his work, and I took a bite into my sandwich and looked out the window. 

Darkness was upon us. But every so often the flashing red lights at gates dispelled the descending darkness as we crossed highways. Leaving DC, the tracks snaked along the Potomac. The icy winter mix we’d been experiencing all day had changed to big snowy flakes by the time we reached Harper’s Ferry. After finishing my sandwich, I purchased another beer and pulled out The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I only had a few pages left, which I read while downing my beer.

The guys in the poker table in the corner kept hollering and then one of them told a racist joke. The car attendant came over and told them they’d been inappropriate and need to return to their seats. When they asked for another beer to take with them, he refused, saying they’d had enough. The game broke up and all but one walked away. This guy became louder, shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The conductor immediately stood up in support of the car attendant, as he called for assistance on his radio. 

I wondered if I was going to witness my first mobile bar fight. The three men, the drunk on one side, the conductor and attendant on the other, appeared locked in a stand-off, waiting for someone to blink. The man was told again that had better go back to his seat or he’d be removed from the train. He refused and sat back down in defiance. 

I’m not sure who made the call, perhaps the other conductor who had stepped into the car and stood at the back. Everyone remained quiet, with the drunk staring at the attendant and conductor. A few minutes later the train slowed. At a lonely snow-covered road, with the flashing lights of a sheriff’s car competing with the crossing lights, the train came stopped. The engineer had parked the lounge car in the middle of the road. 

The attendant opened the door, and two sheriff deputies entered. They spoke briefly to the conductor, and then to the drunk’s amazement, told him he was under arrest. He asked if he could go back to his seat but was cuffed and led out into the night. The conductor made a call from his radio, the whistle blew, and the train jerked forward. Everyone in the lounge car remained quiet, surprised by what we’d witnessed.

The day, cold and gray, had started early as I’d boarded the Silver Star in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I’d spent New Year’s Eve with my Grandma, barely making it till midnight. I was in bed soon after Dick Clark finished clicking off the seconds of 1986 at Times Square. 

Boarding the train, I was seated in a coach that I soon learned had a malfunctioning heating unit. Everyone was cold and the attendant had given out every blanket he had. I pulled my sleeping bag from my backpack and sat down, sliding my legs into it. My eyes alternating from the barren winter landscape outside to the pages of The Bridge over the River Kwai.

In Raleigh they tried to fix the heating unit, and again in Petersburg, but in both cases, as soon as we were running, the unit kicked out. The train, filled with folks heading home for the holidays, was full. There were no available seats in the other cars. That afternoon, I napped, warm in my bag, as sleet and freezing rain pounded against the window. There wasn’t a second to pause when we reached Washington, D. C. We were late and I had to immediately board the Capitol Limited for its run toward Chicago. Winded, I was at least pleased to find a warm coach with a working heat unit. 

After my light dinner and the evening entertainment, I’d returned to my seat. The train crossed over the Appalachians and began the downhill dart through coal towns nestled along the Youghiogheny. The snow piled up. When we stopped at the little hamlets, folks getting off the train would leave footprints in the powder as they head toward the station or awaiting cars. Some looked around, as if waiting for someone who wasn’t there to greet them. This was such a lonely scene, I thought. As the tracks approached Pittsburgh, running through the Monongahela Valley, I saw flames coming from the few steel mills still operating. Their red glow cutting though the darkness. A few minutes later, we pulled into Pittsburgh. As I got off, I wonder if I’ll have a ride, if Rusty has been able to make it through the snow to pick me up.

Sure enough, Rusty was waiting in the station. Pittsburgh had received nearly a foot of snow, but he was used to driving in it. The roads were vacant as we drove through town. Once we got back to the school, I dropped my bags in my apartment, pulled on my boots and headed outside. It was early in the morning, January 2nd, but I couldn’t sleep. Outside something magical happened. The dreary day had been transformed and now, at night, the snow added a cheerfulness to the air. I walked along Highland Avenue, enjoying the left-over Christmas lights that pierced the darkness. I was home.

Church steeple high over a Pittsburgh neighborhood in January 1987
Taken from the 3rd Floor of Fisher Hall at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in January 1987. Sadly, the Catholic Church with the high spires closed two decades ago. Many of its slate shingles had fallen off when I was in Pittsburgh last summer.

Postscript: Two days later, my mother called to make sure I was okay. She had heard of a terrible train wreck in Maryland. I don’t know why she worried that I was on that train unless she felt that my former trip’s wreck made me unlucky on trains. The accident turned out to be the one of the worse rail accidents in Amtrak history as a set of Conrail engines ignored lights and crossed in front of the Amtrak train. 

2023 Reading Recap

selfie of me, taken along Laurel Fork

Summary: 

 202120222023
Total books read 545353
Fiction848
Poetry (and about poetry)561
History/Biographies131713
Theology and ministry[1]162219
Essays/Short Stories836
Humor413
Nature6913
Politics335
Memoirs10114
Writing (how to)221
Titles by women14716
Read via Audible202026
Books reviewed303439[2]

The numbers do not add up as some of the books fit into multiple categories.

A few additional insights into my reading:

Of the books read this year, I have met 14 of the authors. 

I’m still reading a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but I read more fiction in 2023 than 2022.

This year I read only 9 non-American authors (and the nine include Canadians and British authors).

My favorite fiction book of the year is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. My favorite non-fiction would be Wendell Berry’s The Need to be Whole. Both books have a lot to say about healing our broken world.  Below, I highlight a monthly favorite with the photo.

According to Goodreads, I read 15,475 pages this year for an average of 292 pages per book. To see my Goodread year end summary, click here.

January

Picture of book cover for "Horizon"

Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail

Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring (second reading, first read this book in the mid-80s)

Barry Lopez, Horizon

Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (I might come back and review this book if he would finish his final volume on LBJ)

Harlow Giles Unger, Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way UP is Down

February

Book cover for Demon Copperhead

John Burgess, After Baptism

C. Lee McKenzie, Shattered

Merrill Gilfillan, Chokeberry Places: Essays from the High Plains

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

March

Book cover for A Speckled Beauty

Douglas Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Tree

Rick Bragg, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Mills Kelly, Virginia’s Lost Appalachian Trail

Joel B. Green, 1 Peter

Barbara Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmstead in a Fractured Land

Jeff Darren Muse, Dear Park Ranger (I read an advance copy, the book was published in May)

April

Book cover for One Summer, America 1927

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

May

book cover for Cadillac Desert

Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (I read most of this book in the mid-1990s, this time I listened and re-read interesting selections)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith

Shelby Foote, Jordan County: A Novel

June

Book cover for Ride with Me Mariah Montana

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

July

Book cover for Big Hair and Plastic Grass

Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (2nd time read, first read in 2001)

Dominic Ziegler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s

August

Book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

Robert Rauk, The Old Man and the Boy (This is my 4th time reading this book since I was in Jr. High)

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

September

Book title for The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationaliam: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shocked the World, 1490-1530

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China

October

Need to be Whole book cover

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables

Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness

Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice

November

Ernest Best, 2 Corinthians: Interpretations

C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants (review coming soon)

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

December

Book cover for A Radiant Birth

Suzanne McDonald, Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories

Tristan Gooley, How to Read Water: Clues & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season


Click here for my reading list from 20222021 and 2020

Did you have a favorite book that you read last year? What’s the title and why did you like it?

Bloggers with recaps for their yearly reading:

AJ’s best of 2023

Bob’s essay on his 2023 reading

Kelly’s 2023 list of books

MaineWords

Kinga’s 2023 summary

And English Homesteader

If you’d like me to highlight your 2023 list here, just send me a link.

Photo of me walking along Laurel Fork
Selfie, hiking along Laurel Fork, 2023

Theological and Devotional Book Reviews along with an update on my recent absence

display of the books reviewed
Steaming oysters poured out to be eaten
My brother dumping a pot of steaming oysters

Next week I plan to post my annual 2023 reading update. But before I get to that, let me update some of my recent readings (I have a couple more reviews from 2023 that have nothing to do with theology, which I hope to post later in January). 

After Christmas, my daughter and I headed to Wilmington to celebrate my father’s birthday and to see family. As usual, we had oysters for my father’s birthday party. I also got to spend an afternoon and an early morning walking on the beach. On my early morning walk, I took this photo: 

And now, to my reviews: 

Sunrise over the surf at Carolina Beach, NC on December 30, 2023
Sunrise at Carolina Beach on December 30, 2023
Book cover for "A Radiant Birth"

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, editors, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 211 pages

I generally pick a book to read during the Advent/Christmas Season.  A Radiant Birth was this year’s book. I am familiar with both editors from Calvin University’s Festival of Faith and Writing and have developed a friendship with Paul Willis over the years. This is a collection of readings for both Advent and the 12 days of Christmas. The genre varies, from poetry to prose, from scripture to sermon, from modern authors to those in the ancient world. I especially enjoyed John Chrysostom’s “Sermon on the Nativity, which he preached in Antioch in AD 386. Both Fields and Willis have pieces in the collection.

This book is a delight and for anyone looking to make the season more meaningful, I recommend this book.

book cover for "Re-Imaging Election"

Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 213 pages.

I met Suzanne McDonald last March at the Theology Matters Conference in Hilton Head, SC. She gave a dynamic lecture on John Owen’s “Beatific Vision.” Several of us afterwards spoke about how we wish our theology professors had her energy and excitement for her topic. Wanting to get to know more about her thoughts, I picked up this book, which I think must have been taken from her doctoral dissertation. This was the most difficult book I read all year and several parts of this book I had to read multiple times to fully grasp what she was attempting to say. I also kept my smart phone handy while reading so I could look up words. That said, a month after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking deeply about her thesis. 

McDonald’s title says it all. God’s elects’ individuals and peoples (such as Israel) for two purposes. Election isn’t just about individual salvation but about participating with God in God’s work in the world. I have often said in sermons that God doesn’t save us just to fill up a hotel room in heaven. We’re saved because God has work for us to do. McDonald essentially says the same thing. Our “election” is for representing God to others (to be God’s agents within the world) and to representing others to God (intercessory prayer is an example). It sounds simple but throw in a hundred or so technical terms and Latin phrases, and you’ll see it’s not so simple.

The book begins with McDonald contrasting the writings on election by John Owen and Karl Barth. Owen, a Puritan, would have a stricter interpretation of election, while Barth’s view is gentler). She plays critical attention to the role Christ and the Spirit plays in each’s understanding of the work within an individual. Next, she explores the meaning of election as seen in both the Old Testament with Israel and the church in the New Testament. While she keeps going back to Owen and Barth, she introduces a host of other voices into the dialogue on election such as Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, George Hunsinger, and Walter Brueggemann.

If you’re interested in going deep into theology, I recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know. I’d enjoy discussing it. 

Book cover for "Drive-Through Christmas Eve"

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories (Rapid City, SD: CrossLink Publising, 2020), 107 pages

Rick Raum has been a good friend of mine since we meet as Pastors of neighboring churches (25 miles apart) in Lake Michigan Presbytery. We have kept in contact over the years and have often seen each other at the meeting of the General Assembly and Theology Matter’s Conferences. A few years ago, while he had retired from preaching and was working for a Presbyterian College in North Dakota as a fundraiser, he and his wife (who has written many non-fiction books for middle school students), published a delightful collection of Christmas stories which had their genesis in Christmas sermons. This is a short, easily read, book. If you’re looking for new Christmas illustrations, I recommend this book. 

book cover for "Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart"

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021), 136 pages.

While I have not met Donna Giver-Johnston in person, we have exchanged emails and have several shared friends. Currently, she is the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Prior to this position, she served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, where I was a half-time student pastor during my senior year at Pittsburgh. Brent, the pastor of the church at the time, became a mentor and a friend. I wrote about his tragic death in 2006 in the Presbyterian Outlook and at some point, will share that article here. All that just goes to illustrate my draw to Diver-Johnston’s book on preaching. 

Sermons cannot be written in one medium, Giver-Johnson insists, and then delivered in another. Speaking and writing are different things. In this book, the author describes her process from being a manuscript preacher to one who preaches without notes. While she still writes a manuscript, she doesn’t use the manuscript in the pulpit. She also doesn’t memorize it. Instead, she preaches shorter sermons as she recalls the themes of her message. I admit that I have not tried her method. Yet, like her I have a set ritual for writing my sermons and for memorizing them. 

Giver-Johnston draws on many top teachers of homiletics, biblical scholars, and communication experts. I’ve read most of these and have studied under a few of them: Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, Neil Postman, Brian McLaren, Eugene Lowry, Fred Craddock, Alyce McKenzie, Tom Long, Barbara Brown TaylorN. T. Wright, And Paul Scott Wilson.

While I appreciate learning about her style of preparation, I am still debating whether I will try to give up the manuscript. Not all those Giver-Johnston draws upon preaches without manuscript (Barbara Brown Taylor is an example of a manuscript preacher who, like me, has internalized much of the text so that by Sunday doesn’t read the sermon). The key, I think, to preaching is to have internalized so that you don’t just read what’s on paper and you have freedom to change things if necessary. 

I recommend this book to preachers, but it also has something to say to writers and others who depend upon words to convey a message. For those interested in writing for the ear, I would also recommend G. Robert Jacks’, Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear. I think it’s out of print, but I read this book nearly 30 years ago and it changed the way I prepared and preached. I would also recommend Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theater. Childers draws upon her theater background and introduces “blocking” and other techniques into the preacher repertoire, which helps internalize the message we are bringing to a congregation. I have adopted some of her suggestions which help me internalize the message. 

Book cover for "Dinner with Jesus"

Timm Oyer, Dinner with Jesus (2023), 94 pages. 

I met Timm shortly after moving to Hastings, Michigan in January 2004. At the time, he was the pastor of the Nazarene Church. For the next eight years, we remained close. Then he went and retired and moved out of state. But we keep up, often through Timm’s reading of this blog and responding with an email or a comment.

Timm, along with the Reverend Jon Carnes, has published a study guide that looks at the meals Jesus enjoyed and how they might inform our own dining habits. Tim wrote a short insight into each text(s), often drawing on personal experiences around his own table or of others. He concludes each of the 13 lessons with questions to encourage the reader to reflect on how to interpret and utilize the message. Jon wrote a centering prayer for each of the passages.  This book could be used in a group study, or an individual could work their way through the lessons, spending time in thought and prayer over each one. 

Kure Beach Pier
Kure Beach Pier, December 28, 2023

Christmas Letter 2023

Title "Christmas 2023, with photos of Bluemont Church in Snow, Laurel Fork Road in snow, and looking inside at night on the Christmas tree at Mayberry Church

I used to always send out Christmas letters, but I stopped doing this around 15 years ago. It got old and most people kept up with me on Facebook. Besides, I live with some private people and there’s only so much I can say about the dogs in the house. So, after a long dry spell, here’s my attempt at this genre again as I focus on myself… 

Christmas is just a few days away. While we have had snow already, it doesn’t appear we’ll have a white Christmas here along the Blue Ridge. But only time will tell. After all, this is the season of miracles. And our world could use a few miracles these days, and there are greater needs than a few snowflakes. For the holiday in which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, this year has been one of war. From Ukraine to the Middle East, along with various spots in Africa, Asia, and South America, we hear of wars and rumors of wars. Pray for peace. We could all use a little. 

It’s cliché to speak about how fast a year has flown by, but it seems that 2023 has been faster than normal. Wasn’t it just a few months ago when I entered the year with COVID. 2022 was a Christmas to forget. I came down with COVID two days before Christmas. Thankfully, I recorded the sermon for Christmas Eve, allowing me to still appear on a big screen TV placed in the sanctuary on a super cold night. COVID kept its grip on me well into January. On the positive side, I got a lot of reading done.  After everyone else in the household came down with it, I moved out of quarantine in my basement office. While thankful for technology, I hope never again to open Christmas presents by FaceTime. 

Early November, looking toward the Buffalo. We will have an incredible view from the back dome

2023 was finally the year we contracted with a builder for planned addition to our house. It was scheduled to begin in May and to be done by August. Because of rain, it didn’t begin until well into June. They pushed finish date back to November. I thought we’d be done in time for a Christmas open house. No such luck. As of today, we’re still missing one of the large, specially made, windows, which didn’t make it with the others. Nor have they started the work on the deck on the back. Hopefully it’ll be done by the spring, and we can have everyone over to enjoy our view of the Buffalo. I’m not holding my breath. 

Of course, the delays cut into travel plans. I still have two weeks of vacation remaining; the other two I spent working on the house. But I like to be here when work happens. Now if we can just get folks to work more than a day every other week. Of course, these are minor first world problems when compared to the rest of the world. On the positive side, I have logged many miles walking the backroads around Carroll County. 

I got away for a Theology Matter’s Conference in Hilton Head in March of this year. As always, the speakers were excellent. Afterwards, I spent some time sailing at Skidaway before heading up to Wilmington to see my father and caught up with a couple of friends from high school

Highland Ave, Pittsburgh PA
In front of the seminary, looking toward East Liberty Presbyterian Church

In July, my Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar group meet in Pittsburgh. I stayed at the seminary. This was my first time being there in over 30 years and I made the most by going up a few days early. I got to see several classmates from seminary.

Lea Austin and Lee Dwyer and I went to a ballgame. The Pirates lost. Afterwards, we meet Walt Pietschmann for dinner. I had a wonderful lunch at a continuing care facility north of the city, thanks to Jean Henderson. She was the director of Field Education and Placement when I was in seminary. She arranged a lunch for me with her and two other residents of the facility, (Charles Partee and Don Gowan). Charles was a history professor. He confessed at lunch his fear he’d be discovered as a fraud, for he considered himself a philosopher. It was good to see Charles again, as he’s the one professor I’ve kept up with over the years.  Gowan was an Old Testament professor. I also had lunch with Steve Crocro, and Mary Witul. It was good to see old friends. 

PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA
PNC Park in Pittsburgh

I caught a second ball game with my theology group along with another friend, Cody Watson, who happened to be in the area for the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. The Pirates lost. They started the season so hot, but after they slipped under .500, they were never able to pull themselves back into a winning season. This letter sounds depressing, doesn’t it. 

cucumbers
I think the left is a Dester II and the right a Japanese Climbing cucumber.

On a more positive note, my garden produced well this summer. I had a bumper crop of cucumbers (28 quarts of lime pickles, 5 quarts of dill pickles). My tomatoes produced well. In addition to eating daily tomato sandwiches from late July to late September, I canned 18 quarts of tomato soup and froze another 20-some pints of tomato sauce. I’ll also be enjoying winter squash until spring and have a couple of nice Amish pie pumpkins to hold me over.  I even had a few messes of okra, which doesn’t like the coolness of the mountain climate.

I have also enjoyed many good books this year. In fiction, the best book was Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Demon Copperhead. This should be required reading for anyone living in these parts. The setting for the story is in far western part of Virginia, but she addresses problems that plague rural America. In the non-fiction category, I’d have to nominate Wendell Berry’s, The Need to be WholeThe book sums up much of his mission in life as he addresses issues with the land and race in American. Berry draws heavily on Scripture and does a wonder exposition on the Ten Commandments. Another good book, for the fun of it, is Bill Bryson’s One Summer, America 1927. Bryson captures a more innocent world that existed a century ago, and as is his trademark, he finds humor everywhere.

We got away for a short trip to Bluefield, West Virginia for the HopeWords Writer’s Conference. This is an incredible conference and it’s the second time Donna and I have attended. Sadly, I’ll probably miss it in 2024 as it conflicts with the “Faith and Writing Conference” at Calvin College.  

I am blessed to serve two Rock Churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a dream of mine to go back to a small church toward the end of my ministry and these churches have been a blessing. I enjoy preaching and visiting with people without the administrative headaches, and look forward to a few more good years before retirement (and writing my memoirs).

Sadly, however, 2023 became a year of deaths. At 66, I’m at the age where those who are a decade or two ahead of me are coming to the end of their lives. But there were also several deaths of friends who were my age and even younger. We need to enjoy and make the most of the time we’re given. 

May 2024 be a year of blessings. Our world could use some good news. We celebrate the birth of our Savior at the darkest time of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). As the gospel of John reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Let’s believe in miracles!

Merry Christmas,
Jeff 

My First Job, Part 3

Title slide showing items from Wilsons Supermarket and cigarette ads

Bert called me into work early one day in 1974. Coming into the store, tying my tie as I walk over to the time clock, I saw Bert talking with Ed. He was one of the two brothers who owned the chain of stores. They called me over and told me I need to take a lie detector test. I was shell-shocked and didn’t have time to object before we were in the office where a stranger sat by a machine. They had me to sit down and the man, whom I’d never seen, explained how the machine worked and said he’d ask me questions. I immediately begin to recall eating a few bananas or grapes that were never paid for while moping the store at night. 

Bert and Ed left the room. The man put clips on my shaking fingers, much like oxygen sensors used in a doctor’s office. A cuff, like one used for blood pressure, was applied to one of my arms. He started off with a bunch of easy questions, most of them personal, like name and age and hobbies and such. Then came the big one. 

“Have you ever stolen anything from the store?”

Knowing my goose was cooked, I admitted eating a few grapes and a banana or two while there late at night mopping. I tried to rationalize saying there was no one to pay and pointed out that other times I weighed the fruit and left the money on a cash register. The man asked more questions about stealing money or about taking things out of the store. Finally, he got to cigarettes and spent some time asking if I or if I knew of anyone who’d stole cigarettes. My answers were honest. I knew of no one who’d stolen money or merchandise. 

I was sweating like a pig when he finally finished. Thinking I was in trouble for my petty thief, I asked him how I did. “I’ll make a report, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he said. “But what about the bananas and grapes?” “Don’t worry,” he said laughing. “That’s not what this is about.” 

That night, while closing, Bert called me aside to tell me what this had been about.

In one of the other stores, they’d discovered a regular criminal ring. Another high school student, like me, who handled the tobacco products was stealing them blind. He would order more cases than needed. As this was back before barcode scanners, the only way to know how much product one sold was by how many items were missing from the shelves. According to Bert, the guy stashed the extra cases behind a dumpster. At night, when no one was looking, he’d stash the cases in his car. He’d been stealing five or so cases a week. Each case held 30 cartons. He sold the cases to someone who took the cases up north, where cigarette taxes were higher, to resale on the black market. 

When the Wilson brothers discovered the ring, they brought in a lie detector detective. All all key employees (those who handled lots of money such as the managers, the cashier supervisors, as well as those who handled tobacco products) take a lie detector test. Even Bert and John had to take the test. I had no idea whether it was legal. but I was glad to have survived and to know that I wasn’t going to be fired for being the great grape thief. 

About six months after I started working at Wilson’s, the guy who’d handled the cigarettes went off to college. Bert asked me if I’d be interested. I’m sure he was hoping he’d have me for several years in the position, which turned out to be the case. Furthermore, I was a good candidate because I didn’t smoke.

At this time, it was legal to smoke in North Carolina when you were fifteen, but the store’s policy was to use non-smokers to handle tobacco products. This was in the fall of 1973 and at that time, in North Carolina, a carton of regular cigarettes (ten packs) sold for $1.89. Do the math. Today, a pack of cigarettes will cost you more twice what a cartoon cost in 1973. Back then, if you wanted the longer cigarettes, you had to pony up a dime more for a carton. By the time I left the store in the summer of 1976, cigarettes had jumped to $2.39 and $2.49 a carton.

Every day I worked, I spent about half an hour filling the shelves with tobacco products. This also meant that I had to work more days to keep the shelves stocked. On Wednesday, it took me several hours as I first helped unload the truck. Then I rotated the shelves of product and fill the depleted ones. I would straighten up the tobacco room in the back and make a report on how many cartons of each cigarette we had in stock. Using that information, I made the order for the next week. I found it fun to project how many I felt we would sell. I knew people could become grumpy when we didn’t have their favorite bands. 

We sold lots of Winstons and Salems and Marlboros. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it seems I generally ordered 30 cases of each of those brands a week. We also sold a fair number of Camels as well as Virginia Slims, the choice cigarette for women. I often had to set up displays by the various Cigarettes. Marboros featured cowboys while Virginia Slims featured sexy women and the logo, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Having grown up with three grandparents who smoked heavily, I felt there was nothing sexy or macho about cigarettes. 

In the summer, we sold more as tourists would stock up before heading back north. There were a few smaller brands that we might only sell a carton or two a week. As you wanted to keep your product fresh, we’d only have five or six cartons in the store at any one time. Occasionally a tourist would come in looking for some old brand, like a Chesterfield, and buy us out. Then, when the regular purchaser of that brand came in, they would be disappointed that we didn’t have any. 

Another job that I assumed after about a year at the store was price changes. I was provided a printout of new prices and had a grocery cart with a bread rack tied to the top. In the part of the cart where the kids sat, I would stash the tools of the trade. A razor scraper, nail polish remover, rags, black magic markers, and a label machine. On my belt hung a price stamping machine. 

I would go to each product, remove the old price. It the item was cans or glass jars with a metal top, the prices were generally stamped in ink. I’d put the cans on top of the bread tray shelf, pour nail polish removal on the rag and wipe off the products. If there were a lot of such cans to change, I’d get a little high from the smell. Next, I stamped the new price onto the top and placed the product back on the shelf. If it was boxes or frozen items, I would have to ink out the price with a magic marker and then place a label over it.  Sometimes I would use a razor to scrape off a label.

When I first assumed this job in late 1973, after someone else had left for college or another job, I thought it was easy. I made the changes in prices in a hour or two each week. But if you remember the mid-70s, inflation began to skyrocket. By late 1974, it was taking me a full day and sometimes two to make all the changes. Instead of having a page printout, I began to have reams of papers. Some of the products that didn’t move off the shelf fast would have several changes on top. I found myself dreading certain changes, such a baby food. You can image how many jars of baby food a grocery shelf holds and to know that all the prices are going up by a cent or two. It’d take me hours. 

In the summer of 1976, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I accepted a job at the bakery. Bert asked if I’d like to stay on and continue to do the cigarettes. I agreed. I trained Tom to do the price changes. At the time I left, I thought I’d be back at the store in the fall, when school resumed. Bert and Ed discussed with me about becoming what was known as “the third man,” in a new store being built at Monkey Junction. When the manager and assistant manager were off, I’d be in charge and would be required to close the store a few nights a week. 

The possibility of this new job as the third man sounded good to a college kid. But I finished my summer position at the bakery, the Production manager, called me into his office one day. Don told me he knew I was about to go back to school and wanted to see if there was a way for them to keep me employed. He suggested that I could have a second shift position and continue to go to school in the morning. He offered me a machine operator position and hinted that there might be a chance for me to become a supervisor. As they paid more than the grocery store was offering, I decided to stay with the bakery. I trained my friend Tom to take over the cigarette business at Wilsons. Two years later, I became a supervisor at the bakery.

Grocery Store Stories

My first job

My first job, Part 2

November 1976 and Tom

Bakery Stories 

Coming of Age at the Bakery

A College Boy in the Bakery

Harvey and Ernest

Frank and Roosevelt

The Perils of Working on the Christian Sabbath

November 1976 and Tom

Title slide with a view of UNCW and a Ford for President campaign button

On the second of November, Election Day, Tom and I met in the cafeteria at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Normally I rushed from school to the bakery for the second shift, but since it was Tuesday, I was off. At the bakery, those in production worked Sundays and Mondays, then Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. In my spare time that fall, between classes and work, I had volunteered for the Ford Campaign for President. Tom, whom I knew since 1973, when we both starting to work at Wilson’s Supermarket on the same day, also volunteered. Often on Tuesdays, we would be working a phone bank or putting up signs. But now Election Day was here. It was time to rest. 

We talked about the election. While I had worked for Ford, I wasn’t opposed to Carter being President. I had even heard him speak on campus during my freshman year in college. There’s not been many election since that I could say that I admired both candidates. Although in different precincts, both Tom and I voted early that morning. It was our first time going to the polls, and sadly, for Tom, his last. 

While eating, Tom shared with me that he was going back to the eye doctor that afternoon. His eyes had been bothering him, and they couldn’t seem to get his thick glasses adjusted. I had no idea this would be the last time I would see him alive. After all, I no longer worked with him at Wilson’s Supermarket, nor did we have classes together. 

Tom, however, had a class with my fiancé. She had complained to me a few weeks earlier about Tom, how he often sat by her and tried to talk to her in a psychology class. Thinking he was weird, with his thick glasses, the red splotches on his skin, and the way he often twitched his head when talking, she felt he made it hard for her to make friends within her field of psychology. She wanted me to tell him to leave her alone. I refused. We had a bad argument. I started to break up with her. Had I done so, it would have saved me much heartache a few years later. But I didn’t. Before the topic came up again, Tom was struggling to live. 

A few days after that lunch, I received a call from Billy, another friend, who told me that Tom was in the hospital and had a brain tumor. His eye doctor realized something else was wrong and sent him to another physician. Billy and I went to see him at the hospital, but were not allowed in. I later learned they performed the surgery, and the physicians realized it was more complicated than expected. They closed him up and brought in a team from Duke to help with the surgery, but Tom didn’t survive. 

Several of us who had worked with Tom at Wilsons attended the funeral. The service was held at the Catholic Church on Wrightsville Beach.  It seemed odd, but this was the second time I had been in a Catholic Church. Both times had been for a funeral and at the same church. The first funeral was three years earlier, for an another high school friend. In an odd sort of way, Tom was the glue that held several of us together. After we said our goodbyes that afternoon, I would never see the two of them again. 

Wilsons grocery bag

Tom and I started at Wilson’s Supermarket on the same day. Being the new kids in the store, we became friends. And during my time there, Tom generally followed me. When I became the leader of the Saturday night mop crew and had an opening, I invited Tom. He would later take my place running the mop crew. I taught him how to use a cash register, how to handle price changes, and to order cigarettes. Billy started working at Wilsons a few months after us, and he was the first to leave as he graduated in 1974. 

While Tom went to a different school than Billy and me, we often hung out and got into mischief after work.

One night, Tom was riding with Billy, and I was following. We headed south on South College. When we got to where the road split off with Shipyard Boulevard, across from Hoggard High School, we took the right as the road became a four lane. I gunned it and moved to pass Billy. We were on a curve with a medium between us and the opposing traffic. The curve limited my sight. Soon, a car in the wrong lane was coming straight toward me. I swung over, trusting I was ahead of Billy. I barely missed the approaching car. Thankfully Billy, sensing the danger, hit his brakes. Billy later said that Thomas screamed something about me dying and grabbed his arms while he was trying to slow down and move onto the shoulder to give me room. Certainly, had I hit this car head-on, I probably wouldn’t have walked away.

I remember going with Tom to a meeting for Ford volunteers that fall. The county chairperson, some big-shot doctor in town, kept calling on Thomas thinking he had a question whenever he twitched his head. Finally, the doctor asked him what was wrong. Tom said he was okay, but I knew the question hurt him. When I told my mother about this exchange, she was furious. “That man is a doctor; he should have know that Tom has a medical condition and not have shamed him.” Sadly, at the time, none of us knew the severity of his condition.  

I don’t know if Tom ever got his driver licenses. He either rode his bicycle or his older brothers gave him a lift. The two of us discussed taking our bikes up to the Outer Banks and riding and camping along the beach, but sadly we never got around to it. Leaving his funeral, I felt a tinge of guilt for not working harder to have made it happen. 

After the funeral, one of his brothers confided in me that Tom’s twitches were a part of his condition which led to his brain tumor. He knew that anytime such a tumor, such as the one that claimed his life, was a possibility. But Tom never sought pity; he just wanted to be included as one of us. I look back over these 47 years and think of all that he missed, and yet I’m glad to have had a few years of friendship with him. 

###

Sadly, I have no photos of Tom. One day I will check out New Hanover High School yearbooks for 1974-1976 and see if I can find a photo.

The Administration building at UNCW
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Two Book by C. Lee McKenzie

Title Slide with book covers

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

Book cover for Rattlesnake

(I read an advance PDF copy) 

Allie and Jonah, a brother and sister from New Hampshire, along with their aunt, find themselves in Rattlesnake, Nevada. It’s an old mining town. Having inherited a house and mine from an uncle, they move with the hopes of rebuilding their lives. Allie and Jonah, whose mother died, and father has disappeared, struggle in their new school. Their aunt attempts to find employment while working on the inhabitable house which also appears to be haunted. The town itself seems to conspire against them. Jonah falls for a girl named Juliet. Unfortunately, she is attached to a bully named Snake. Another boy named Galvin befriends Jonah and the two make the basketball team. Galvin is also interested in Allie. 

As Jonah attempts to get revenge on Snake, something goes wrong. Allie and Jonah find themselves transported back into time, where they meet Catherine, the ghost in their home. She, too, is from a family without a mom. Her father is accused of murder and hanged. To save her father’s name and reputation, she needs Jonah’s help. Without giving away the details, things work out. 

While I am never been drawn to ghost stories, I enjoyed this book. Of course, I couldn’t help to draw parallels between Jonah and Allie’s new home in Rattlesnake and my own experience in Virginia City, Nevada. A few things were too similar. Rattlesnake had a Bucket of Venom Saloon while Virginia City has a Bucket of Blood. Both communities in history had Chinese sections which provided firewood and vegetables among other things.

Allie and Jonah move into Rattlesnake toward the end of summer, the same time I moved to Virginia City. McKenzie capture many of the experiences I had, such as the sun slipping behind the mountain earlier and the coming cold weather that happens in the desert mountains. Although I didn’t have a ghost muse named Catherine to draw me into an interest in history, I became obsessed with the community. In my last few months in Virginia City, about once a week I’d spent an afternoon in the Nevada Historical Society achieves at the University of Nevada, Reno. Later, I would write a dissertation on the community. 

I recommend this book to middle school and high school age young adults. The book points out the danger of bullying, and of not speaking up for what is right. Hopefully, the reader will learn there are noble things we should do, if we can, to make things right.

The author provided me a copy of the book before publication for an honest review. This is the fourth book I’ve read by McKenzie. I appreciate how she addresses issues faced by our youth. However, this is the first “ghost story” I’ve read by her. In this blog, I reviewed Not Guilty and Shattered.

Links to my own posts about my time in Virginia City: 

Sunday afternoon drive to Gerlach 

Arriving in Virginia City 

David Henry Palmer arrives in Virginia City, 1863

Doug and Elvira

Matt and Virginia City

Riding in the cab of a locomotive on the V&T

Christmas Eve, 1988

C. Lee McKenzie, Sliding on the Edge 

Book cover for "Sliding on the Edge"

(Westside Books, 2009).  I read this on my iPad using a Kindle app.

Shawna is a tough sixteen-year-old, at least on the outside. She can survive the streets of Las Vegas and the abusive boyfriends of her narcissistic mother. When her mother flees town with her newest lover, on the day the rent is due, Shawna wakes to a bus ticket, a $100 bill, and a note to go to her grandmother’s home in Central California. There, she will be where her mother can find her when she gets her life back together. 

Having never met her grandmother, Shawna reluctantly decides to take the trip. Having been disappointed all her life, Shawna has developed a protective façade that pushes others away. In a similar way, her grandmother Kay also has a habit of pushing people away. The two leading characters in the story have sad memories that each must deal with. But Shawna issues are deeper. Having pushed everyone away, she deals with her deep pain by giving into the “Monster” and cutting herself with a razor blade.  Shawna and Kay need the other.  Kay, by taking care of Shawna, can finally put aside the tragedies of her past as Shawna, with the help of her grandmother and an old horse, learns to trust. The book is told from the point-of-view of both characters: Kay and Shawna.  

I found myself deeply pained by the events of Shawna’s past. No child should ever have to deal with a mother who used her daughter in her schemes to obtain what she wanted in life. As we read the stories, we learn the two had worked together as petty criminals on the streets of Vegas. Moving to Central California, where she surprises her grandmother, Shawna finds herself in a strange new world. This is the world of horse farms and high schools where girls have sleepovers. It takes a lot of patience but by the end of the book, after she realizes she doesn’t want to go back to her mother, things are looking up for Shawna.  

I have often enjoyed the young adult works, especially the works of Gary Paulsen and Gary Schmidt. However, they write stories about teenage boys. Reading about a teenage girl, in a book written for girls is a little different. I was curious to learn what goes on in someone’s mind that causes them to cut themselves. As a book of fiction, this is not a handbook about the practice and how to stop it. But I can see how one can come so jaded about life that they resort to such drastic measures to battle the pain. 

This review appeared in another blog of mine in 2016.