Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Diners and Dinners

One Year’s Eating Out Adventures (totally unscripted). If they’re on this list they’re worth checking out. Most are within the vicinity of Johnson City. No national chains.

Moe’s BBQ (located in JOCY and Asheville)
Pilot Hill General Store, (Limestone, Tenn.)
Hokie Smokie (in JOCY across from The Mall)
Firehouse BBQ (on Walnut Street towards downtown from campus)
Phil’s Dream Pit (at the Eastern Star exit off I-26 between JOCY and Kingsport)
Carolina Barbeque (Newland, N.C.)
Heartwood Visitor's Center (Abingdon, Va. updated 6/14/18)
Bob's Dairyland (Roan Mtn., Tenn. updated 6/14/18)

Hot Dogs:
JC Cardinal Park

Burger / General Fare places:
Burger Bar (at the Hilton Hotel in JOCY)
Burger Hut (across from the Elizabethton Airport)
Mid-City Grill (in JOCY across from the Farmer’s Market Pavilion)
Burger Bar (in Bristol, Va. not Bristol, Tenn.)
Hawg and Dawg, (Erwin, Tenn.)
Sharp’s Deli (Market Street in downtown JOCY)
Rodie’s Parkway Restaurant, (Glendale Springs, N.C.)
One Acre Cafe (Walnut Street, JOCY)
Kosher Pickle (Bristol Highway, below Winged Deer Park, JOCY)

Local Italian (more than just pizza) and/or Mid-East:
Portobello’s (at Kroger’s east of campus)
Crazy Tomato (Princeton Road, other side of I-26 from the mall)
Johnnie Brusco’s (across from the mall)

Boonies (aka Davis Dock, on Boone Lake, Bluff City, Tenn.)
Limestone Ruritan (Limestone, Tenn.)

Doughnuts / Bakery / Dedicated Breakfast:
Sunshine Doughnuts (in JOCY near campus)
Blackbird Bakery (up the street from Burger Bar in Bristol, Va.)
Hales Ruritan (Hales Community, Tenn.)
Limestone Ruritan (Limestone, Tenn.) (the only duplicate listed?)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

[letter to an anonymous person about life’s lessons] writing exercise

To Whom It May Concern
I write this as a way of perhaps expressing those few things I’ve learned in life and wish them to be passed on. A message in a bottle would be a bit of a romantic idea, I suppose, but maybe it really is just the ticket, too. Imagine the possibilities.

(The fine print.) I do indeed presume to suggest that what I have learned over the years are, in my opinion, of particular wisdom. You may follow all or a few or none of these. It’s your life. This is a compilation of a just a few hints, ideas, and bits of advice from an old man. (End of fine print.)

In no particular order or importance:
Read your Bible;
Avoid smoking;
Keep on the lookout for love in yourself and in others;
Eat curiously;
Travel whenever possible to anyplace;
Learn, be curious, be intellectual, be skeptical;
Do good things and think good thoughts;
Be positive;
Practice the Boy Scout Law;
Know your commandments;
Go to school;
Be smart;
Never stop dreaming to be better but be careful about wanting better;
Be forever cognizant of who you are;
Know thyself, say the Greeks, and avoid extremes.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

writing lessons: the greatness of sandwiches

I like a good sandwich which means I have to list the ingredients of a good sandwich but experience says that the personal touch is more important than the ingredients. Your mother would say the same thing.

Generally I like whole wheat store-bought bread. This is probably criminal in some minds but I am not a fan of the over-sized hoagy nor the artisan bread that has rocks in it. My fillings get tired of the latter and my jaw tired of the former. I generally like deli-cut meats: roast beef, most hams, BBQ but sauce on the side. I like a sprinkling of lettuce, cheese (almost any kind), horseradish mustard, sweet pickle, and onion but not the oils. For something like a Philly, a grilled sandwich, I go for extra mushrooms and onions, all kinds of peppers but forget all the rest of the stuff. Well, maybe a few tomato slices. All grilled together.

I am not too picky. Really, I’m not. I’ve had some really good sandwiches at roadside diners and some really lousy ones in the the so-called finer restaurants. It isn’t as much as a list of ingredients as it is freshness, a little bit of care, and human intervention. Corporate sandwiches generally do not cut it. I like to be able to add or subtract on a whim. I’m not bragging but I’ll give a lot of leeway and I have tried some sandwiches at places I might not have tried before. But, sometimes you just get so lucky!

The best sandwiches I think hold together, physically. I don’t like having chunks of bread on my plate and me holding the sandwich between the meat and the lettuce. I have begun here later in life to avoid mayo which raises the eyebrows of a few counter people but they get over it pretty quickly. Mayo has been replaced by the horseradish mustard. Much better tasting. A variety of tastes, if I recall rightly, is very good for your system.

Strangely, enough, I remember a grilled pimento cheese sandwich which should not be all that noticeable but it was at a little diner in Hadleyville, SC, while we were out birding. The sandwich was good, the little shop with 24 seats where we took 18 of them was even better. Maybe that was part of the enjoyment. Changed my thinking about pimento cheese. I don’t recall all the details but it was good!

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Writing Assignment: A Favorite Moment in a Film

Nicolas Cage, in The Lord of War, plays an arms dealer who operates on the scale of armies instead of gangsters. The movie is a pretty good movie with lots of tight spots and quandaries for Cage’s character. In one scene he lands on board a plane on a dusty road in Africa and is captured immediately by the cops. The cops, hoping to break him, chain him to a box, and leave him for the rest of the day and the night sitting near the plane.

Before the cops return the next day, the natives strip the plane completely to the point there is no plane left, just Cage sitting on his box.

The scene is done in stop action and is quite impressive. It almost takes away from the story but makes for an interesting few minutes of movie watching.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Just Pie

We laid my grandmother to rest on August 13, now just 30 days ago. She was 82. I hope I make it past 65 let alone get to 82. It helps to have good genes. My mom has good genes that she inherited from Grandma. My dad couldn’t make it to the funeral. He had a good excuse. He was and still is doing time in Chatsworth Correctional Center, near Montgomery, for fraud. One of the people he defrauded was my grandmother.

It rained on August 13. We had been through one of the hottest, driest summers in east Tennessee in about ten years until maybe a couple of days before the funeral and then it rained torrentially for a week! Streams overflowed. Crawl spaces flooded. All kinds of calamity and in it all Grandma died. I don’t know for sure if Mother told my dad or not. I am not sure I care.

My Grandma was a good person as I think most grandmothers are. She taught me and my mom how to cook ‘cause my mom had to deal with so many problems from my dad she never got the time to teach me to cook by herself. Dad was always wheeling and dealing until he got caught and me and mom were just window dressing for the most part of his life. Grandma appreciated people. She liked to read and explore. She and granddad did manage to get out of the mountains and even off the east coast every couple of years. They liked to travel partly, I think, because as kids they didn’t get that chance.

My grandparents grew up in the Depression days without too much to their family names. Grandma was third of four kids and she was the last to go beyond. Her father had been a druggist and survived pretty well during the depression compared to lots of families. She said she always had a good life. She got to travel a little bit. It might not seem like much to us nowadays but for her honeymoon they went to Niagara Falls. I haven’t even been to Niagara Falls.

One of the stories my mom used to tell me about Grandma was when Grandma was trying to teach my mom how to make a pie. Mom told me this one day when we were sitting in the parking lot at the hospital. Mom was trying hard to talk to relieve her stress, I think of Grandma being in the hospital, but when she’d talk about Grandma she usually wanted to cry.

She, my Grandmother, called all her pies “Just Pie” but my mom didn’t know how you made just pie.

Apparently Gran was going to make a pie for an upcoming church sale, something she did regularly. this was after Pop passed and her involvement with church was how she kept in touch with friends and I think some kind of grounding in the world. My uncle Billy had moved to California and rarely, of course, visited so it was left to me and mom, Grandma’s neighbors, and the church to keep her sane.

I don’t know if Grandma made specific kind of pie. I like cherry and rhubarb myself and my mom is an awfully good baker although to hear her tell it she didn’t start out that way. She is decent at cookies but unbeatable at pie and I don’t know what or how she does it, either. I can do okay, I guess, but maybe I don’t give myself enough credit. I sort of slip out of the habit of baking for one but love the chance to bake for an office party. I don’t always enjoy the party since everyone tends to ask about my dad but I do like the excuse to cook. The apartment smells so nice and there is this older guy, terribly alone, who lives above me and so I make something extra for him. He’s a good joe and makes sure all of us in the building are okay when the power goes off or something like that.
But, sometime ago, I think when mom was carrying me, she and Grandma were preparing several pies for a church function. I don’t know that I know the ‘why’ for sure. Mom said she wasn’t sure what Grandma was putting in any given pie but apparently, sometimes, different ingredients went in depending upon what Grandma had in the kitchen. They, she, had decided that any pie might be better than some requested pie or a favorite pie. What ever she was making it would be good, for sure, and as always, good to look at, too.

The story goes that they were removing several pies from the oven to the butcher block that served as an island in Grandma’s kitchen. They must have done more than just two although I don’t think I ever heard how many, exactly. They were merrily making pie fixings and my mom wants to do it right and follow directions of course but Grandma just madly slings this and that into the filling. That was just the way she made her pies. If they weren’t 100-percent apple that was okay. Sort of fruit pie approach, I guess. Who asks what is the right flavoring for a fruit pie?

Fruit pie? Apple pie? Cherry pie? Rhubarb pie? Peach pie? Apple-cherry-rhubarb-peach pie? Who knew? So, they were working on about four pies, if I recall rightly, two in the oven and two being prepared. The inevitable happened. The story I got was that as Grandma brought out one pie from the oven mom was turning to put one in the oven and they collided. Not just a quick lane change and a giggle and continue but full-on head-on (pie-on?) collision. The way I heard it mom got her pie back under control but Grandma’s did a half-barrel roll and ended up, upside down on the aluminum sheet covering the butcher block island.

I guess Grandma’s pie made a big splat and skidded a few inches really making a mess. Mom got her pie landed safely on top of the oven and turned in shock to help Grandma. Mom said she felt just awful that the pie was effectively ruined. It was flat as a pizza but lumpy and gushy. Her words. It took a moment or two for them to gather up their thoughts and mom apologized and said she didn’t mean to ruin Grandma’s pie. Grandma was unperturbed, of course. She’d been through her share of kitchen accidents as had my mother several of which were a heck of lot worse than upside down pie.

“Dear,” said Grandma. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take it as it. Even upside down and uneven. After all, it’s just pie!”

I think you had to be there.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


“I remember one night,” I said to Jerry Knowles, “like this one, when we were out on the nightjar survey.”

“A what survey?”

“Nightjars. Birds. You know, flying things.”

“I know what birds are. What the heck is a nightjar? Something you use for the toilet?”

We were sitting on Jerry’s back porch watching another glorious sunset, on a warm June night, the lightning bugs were in full light, and one or two night insects were tuning up their hind legs. Jerry’s wife was shopping on the town with my wife and between the two would probably expand the national debt by a significant factor.

He knew I liked to go on bird watching forays with the local club but apparently he’d never heard this story before.

“A nightjar is a common name for whip-poor-wills and chucks-will-widow. Night birds that fly with their mouths open and round like a jar and scoop up bugs.

“But,” said Jerry, “you can’t see a bird a night, right?”

“Well, yes, but what we really is listen for their calls. Like you would an owl, for instance.”

“I bet that makes for some interesting questions from the natives,” said Jerry.

“Yes,” I said, “well, there’s a story that goes with that. But I gotta get a refill first.”

We both groaned our way out of the deck chairs, those Adirondack back-killers that makes you sit way back in the seat and impossible to get out of, gracefully. He kept a bottle of Old Quaker or Young Granddad or some kind of cheap hooch next to the sliding screen door so we didn’t have to go back inside. We both liked our booze with a splash of water but no ice. Jerry’s deck looked out towards the west but his back yard was full of trees which dappled the shade for about an hour before sunset but now was backlit only by a glow. Along one side of his property someone had planted a solid row of pine that were very mature and really tall. He had said more than once he didn’t know what to do or think about when those pine decided to lean over some day and start knocking on his roof!
Along the other side, that neighbor had built a fence in the last few years to keep out prying eyes watching his pool. The neighbor didn’t quite understand that Jerry had been under no obligation to remove his deck as a sign of cooperation. The pool didn’t get used much, apparently, after that.

“So, you go out in the night to count birds?” said Jerry.

“Sort of,” I said. “We do a regular, predetermined survey for only one class of birds. The night jars.”

“Which are?”

“Whip-poor-wills, mostly. Didn’t you used to hear them when you were a kid?”

“Not me. I grew up in Charlotte. Not a nightjar in sight. Or sound. As far as I know.”

“Out in the counties they call in early summer or late spring. They call then and mate then and when mating season is over they’re quiet again. We know from earlier surveys where whips and chucks have been found before and we follow that route. Wait for them to call and record the times.”

“What if they don’t call?”

“Then we note that they didn’t call.”

“I suppose once in a while the sheriff shows up and wonders what is going on?”

“Now that you ask,” I said.

“They do? They did?”

“Better than that,” I said. “We were at Hatcher Cemetery which is actually in Carter County down below Milligan College. Our second stop of the night. Full darkness. Full moon but it was overcast. The cemetery is up on a hill top. No farms really near so no lights at all. I suppose there were eight of us. Two cars, I think. We’d pulled into the back of the cemetery because that gave us a better chance to hear from more open farm land rather than in front near the road where a passing car really throws off listening. I mean, it was dark, so I guess that was the idea. Like I should know the difference.”

“Wouldn’t the locals notice your headlights?”

“I suppose but most of them are inside watching TV. You can see sometimes the glow of a television or a computer screen. And there’s people who drive all over the place at night. You wouldn’t believe the traffic in the most remote places sometimes. For a mid-week night, about eleven o’clock, out in the middle of nowhere, along comes a bunch of cars as if they knew we needed to have quiet. That sort of thing. Or you run into a string of people who insist on asking if you need help. It’s nice but strange. You know?”

I got myself a second refill.

“So, we’re out at Hatcher Cemetery. In the back. Lights out. Listening. We can hear dogs and cars and even a whip calling. Count of one, so far. We mill around. Not much happening. The clock is winding down. Into the cemetery comes some headlights. Two cars. Carefully. Together. I’m thinkin’, oh, boy, it’s the cops. Or worse, it’s some good ol’ boys and they’re looking trouble and we’re it.

“They pull up and we sort of nervously await to see what’s to happen. Even though it’s dark, we have a flashlight or two, but we can tell it’s not the sheriff. This is gonna be trouble, I’m thinking. They get out, I think there were only about four of ‘em. Real quiet like. No rumble. No yelling. Whatcha doin’, they asked. Just as friendly as you please. Listening for whip-poor-wills said our guy in charge. We’re on a survey for the USDA.

“Oh, this one guy says, in a really nice voice. We were just wondering. We’re with the UFO club in Jonesville and thought maybe you’d found something.”

“UFOs? Really? X-file guys?” said Jerry.

“I know, it sounds weird. It sure threw me for a loop.”

“What happened after that?”

“Oh, they were polite and all but not terribly interested so they left.”

“And that’s all?”

“What’d you expect? They were going to whistle up a flying saucer? It’s squirrelly enough being out in the dark at some cemetery listening for birds let alone team up with some space junkies looking for aliens. I mean, who’s weirder? Them or us?”

Jerry didn’t say anything. He was still awake, I knew, I could see him slowly take a sip from his drink.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “they’re a bunch of UFO nuts up here in the mountains. Along with every other crazy human being?”

“No,” I said. “I think these guys were just a bunch of fellows with a common interest and havin’ fun. I don’t imagine they require secret handshakes or oaths of allegiance or roast live chickens over a bond fire.”

Jerry said, “Yeah, but, they were out there roaming around in the dark looking for something nobody hardly ever sees.”

“You don’t say?”

I smiled into the dark of my drink.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Billy Bragg

Jonathon William Bragg did not start out life trying to be a bad guy. Of course, not many people in the world are born mean. There’s been a few, Murdock recalled, one woman named Naomi Landers from up in Johnson County apparently never liked her parents or her siblings or the cat.

Billy Bragg wasn’t like that! He learned his hate in high school or there about. Someone called him a name, he took offense, a teen-age rumble started and 10 years later it ended when name calling got the better of him and this time he was bigger and stronger and had ten years to swallow his pride and the fight was over in about fifteen minutes with the bully’s head caved in and his brains on the floor and Bragg in the corner crying in his beer realizing at the last what he had done.

While the trial was ordinary the outcome was not. Bragg had pleaded guilty to the fighting and losing control and having 10 years of hatred unleashed but he did not plead guilty to manslaughter but to assault and battery, saying the death was not his intention or his fault. The coroner, the investigating detective, the court-appointed psychologist, felt otherwise. So did the jury.

Bragg changed his tune. He fired one attorney after another going into the appeal. He denounced his victim. He claimed his actions had been determined by God. The court was pondering a psychiatric review again and then, for any reason not known to the good folks of the town, he was let out on bond. He promised, he said, he promised, he promised, he promised, he wouldn’t leave town. And he didn’t. Instead he got himself a gun.

That was when Murdock found him, too. In the alley next to Murdock’s office. Johnny Murdock had been out late that night, late for him, at least, doing a bit of very close surveillance in an undisclosed back yard only to arrive to his office and find Billy Bragg waiting, loaded for bear, or at least loaded for Murdock.

Murdock had been on the defense team that could not get Bragg off and Bragg more than once swore his anger at Murdock and old Chester McClain, the lead attorney, but Chet was old and Bragg didn’t seem that was much of challenge.

What Murdock knew, though, and so did Chester McClain, was that Bragg was a bit different. They found by just plain luck that one time Bragg was eating at a local restaurant and for no apparent reason other than being altruistic (a word Bragg would not have used on himself) Bragg paid for the breakfast of an elderly couple who looked like they had seen a rough last few years. That didn’t seem to tie in with a young man who could erupt so quickly. Bragg’s landlady said the man was quiet, willing to help around the place, paid on time. He was polite.

He was polite. Which was sometimes, Murdock thought, an indicator of trouble.

And, Bragg drove one of his neighbors, an older man, to the grocery store seemingly whenever the old gent wanted to go, as if Bragg was willing to give up his time for the man. They weren’t related, the old boy was nice enough and had a pension but not much wealth, as far as Murdock could tell. Were these random acts of kindness. Bragg was always polite.

Until he wasn’t polite any more and when the warrant was issued for him because he violated his parole.

Bragg had a gun. Later it was discovered he’d purchased it from a private owner. Nothing fancy. A six-shot 38-caliber old-style police revolver and he only bought six bullets was not much of a weapon unless of course it was pointed at you.

Bragg’s politeness compelled him to call out to Murdock from the dark of the alley. Johnny Murdock about jumped out of skin.

“Hola, Murdock. You all right?”

It took Murdock a long heart-beat to recognize Bragg’s voice. In the next heart-beat he remembered that Bragg was armed.

“Billy, you going to shoot me down in the dark?”

“Of course not. You tried to help. Didn’t do much but you tried. You and old man McClain. You tried although I thought at times you didn’t try very hard, either.”

“We did what we could,” said Murdock.

“Right. I ‘spect you did. Just sometimes I think  it wasn’t very much. Didn’t have much to offer me.”

Murdock felt it was not the right time to explain to Bragg that his personality had left them few options. Nor was it probably the right time to express the idea that Murdock carried with him that Bragg might very well have been freed under supervision if the case had turned their way only slightly. But, it hadn’t.

“Look, Billy, there is the story going around you stole a gun. Don’t get yourself in to worse trouble. Let’s get down to the station and put this behind us.”

“Yeah, right, Murdock. No. I believe I can get behind all this with easier moves like why don’t you come done this alley with me.”

Murdock’s heart was beginning to pound ever harder if that was possible. Of all the alleys in town this was the darkest, for sure.

“Billy, what are you going to do? Huh? Something really awful? You kill me won’t get you any better off. The cops are looking for you. You make it tough on them and they’ll just respond worse.”

Magical interruption? Luck? A car pulled up to there end of the alley. Murdock could see it was Estep. When he turned his attention back to Bragg, he sensed Bragg had moved farther into the dark. Murdock held up his palm, indicating to Estep to stay where she was next to the car. Bragg had slipped further into the dark, unnoticed. Murdock ventured into the glow of the street light to stand by Estep.

“What’s up?” she said. The cop in her voice was demanding. “Is Bragg back in there?”

“Yeah. He’s looking for a fight, I think. With me.”

“Not going to allow that.”

“I know but about we can do is wait for daylight.”

“Won’t happen,” she said. “He’s not that kind.” She made police noises into the radio microphone. “Backup is on its way, Murdock. Let’s don’t do anything stupid.”

“I don’t he’s the kind to come out guns blazing, either. We’ll have to go get ‘em.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard,” said Estep. “He’s liable to do anything.”

“Murdock!” Bragg called from deep in the dark of the alleyway. “Murdock? You still out there?”

“Yeah, Billy, I’m here.”

“I’m a mixed up kind of guy, Murdock, I know that! At least you tried to help. I appreciate that. Some where along the way a screw came loose. You know what I mean? Faulty wiring finally broke down.” He laughed. “Is that what you educated people call a bad analogy? Faulty wiring breaking down. Like I’d rubbed off a spot of insulation and shorted myself. What a joke.”

“It’s not a joke,” said Murdock.

“On me, it is. Murdock?”

“Yeah, Billy. What?”

But, Billy Bragg didn’t answer. The hum of the city answered the silence. The cicada, which had not been bothered yet by the loud talk, screamed ever so louder. Taking a cue from the silence of the alley, Murdock’s imagination perked up at the tone of Bragg’s voice, at the instant recognition of what the boy was thinking. Murdock stepped away from the relative safety of Estep’s car and took two or three quick strides into the treacherous dark trap before Estep ordered him to wait.

“Billy?” Murdock’s voice disappeared into the empty of the dark alley. “Billy?”

There was one shot. It disturbed the dark and the reasonable quiet of this part of town. The cicada went quiet, too. Murdock froze in his tracks. A half-a-moment passed while Estep fished a flashlight out of the trunk of her car and they worked their way down the alley. Thirty or forty feet in, where there was a dumpster and broken furniture, in a doorway to one of the businesses out on Hamilton Street, they found Billy Bragg.

The cicada returned.

Billy Bragg lay sprawled in the dirt and trash of the brick path of the alley. He’d swallowed a bullet. While Estep was cop-cautious approaching Bragg’s body, Murdock leaned against the brick wall, disappointed and sick to his stomach. It had not needed to end this way. Whatever made Bragg tick was now lost and could not be undone or corrected. The finality of it all was ever so much more difficult to accept. Murdock wanted to argue with Bragg which took him a moment or two to realize that futility. He was angry at Bragg for not wanting or trying to correct his life. Murdock felt someone or something was a fault here but he wasn’t able to get to an answer.