June 2017 – The Sweet of Summer

A NEW LOOK AND A NEW WEBMASTER

Those of you who know me personally might reckon I’m too long in the tooth, too sparse in the hackle, and as Grandpa Joe would have put it, too “sot in my ways” to be involved in change. There’s likely more than a modicum of truth to your beliefs. I barely understand how to use my cell phone, have something approaching outright fear of Facebook, think Twitter is something birds do when you disturb them, and generally feel more comfortable when immersed in things linked to the past rather than the present or uncertain future.

Yet I would argue that in many ways I’m young at heart and in mind. I welcome the hour or two each morning where I piddle around in the garden with an ever renewing sense of joy. I have no trouble finding a full measure of pleasure in a good book. Cooking, even though it is now just for me since my beloved Ann is in a nursing home, still brings a welcome challenge. Quiet moments to reflect, time spent gathering garden produce to share with others, and the pure delights of work all mean a great deal to me. If those attitudes somehow are linked to youth, then I’m young (well, maybe evergreen would be a better choice of words).

Incidentally, if you’ll indulge me while I run down a side path, something as I’m wont to do, mention of the “delights of work” leads to a bit of what Grandpa would have called “philosophizing.” It flat out frosts my grits that so many people in today’s world seem to think work is something to be avoided or that somehow the world owes them a living. To my way of thinking President Lyndon Johnson, with his creation of the so-called “Great Society,” gave birth to a nightmare. Welfare too often equates to a loss of dignity. SNAP vouchers (or whatever they call food stamps these days) are abused in an incredible way and seem all too often to be used by those who are perfectly capable of giving a day’s labor. One-parent families are all too common and a sense of inner pride and self-worth seems to be a vanishing quality. That’s enough of that, but I grew up in a time, a place, and a family where you worked with a will and at day’s end you felt good about yourself. Looking back I know that outlook was one of the finest gifts my parents gave me.

That’s enough rambling. Let’s get to the matter at hand, and it involves some dramatic changes in the wind as far as this website is concerned. Circumstances sort of forced them on me, but as is so often the case, what seems to be a minor disaster has positive, even uplifting elements. Such is the case with what will be a quite new look and approach to this website, as you’ll see in weeks and months to come.

My longtime webmaster, a wonderful lady named Tracy Watt who originally convinced this technological troglodyte he needed this new-fangled thing called a website, let me know a few months back that she was retiring from webmastering (if there is such a word). Her equipment was increasingly outdated, I’d probably tried her infinite patience and graciousness to the max, and most of all I strongly suspect she had reached a point where she just wanted to take it easy and revel in the joys of grandmothering. I owe Tracy a lasting debt of gratitude, as do any of you who have enjoyed my meanderings over the years, because without her there would have been no website, no newsletter, and no real Internet presence at all.

Fortunately, I’ve found a wonderful replacement for Tracy. The better part of a decade ago my younger brother, Don, sent me a link to a blog called “Blind Pig & the Acorn” along with a suggestion to the effect that he believed I’d find it a pure daily delight. Was he ever right. We soon met the chinquapin-eyed, new-penny bright woman behind the blog, Tipper Pressley, and since then we’ve become fast friends not only with Tipper but with her husband, Matt, and their twin daughters, Corie and Katie. Tipper’ father, the late Jerry Wilson, and her extraordinarily gifted brother, Paul, played at our father’s funeral. Don has even discovered that we are distant cousins.

I’ve greatly admired Tipper’s ability to provide sterling content, always focused on the southern Appalachians and their people, 365 days a year. Also, we share a great many common interests centering on the common geography of the place of our raisin’, mountain folkways, nature, gardening, cooking, music, and much more. Tipper’s website, which I’ve mentioned more than once in past issues of this e-newsletter, is entrancing and enchanting. Also, she has a great deal of computer/Internet savvy (her day job is that of web and social media specialist for Tri-County Community College near her home in Brasstown, NC). When she agreed to take over as my webmaster I felt like jumping for joy, never mind that age and a surplus of avoirdupois (if you don’t know the meaning of this $10 word, make a guess or look it up) would probably mean a ground clearance of about two inches. Tipper will be able to help out a bunch when it comes to photos, since she’s a first-rate photographer and does a lot of work on subjects I cover, she knows the ins and outs of organizing things right, and I think it fair to say you’ll see some of her ability over coming issues. I’m excited and hope you will be as well.

BOOKS

I’ve been busy revamping, updating, expanding, and otherwise getting a number of book lists ready. I’ve got a long way to go, but here are links to those that are ready. There are newly added items, a good many reduced prices, and plenty of browsing as you look for summertime reading.

 THE SWEET OF SUMMER

Summer has, over the span of my life, meant so much to me in so many ways. It is, among so much more, a time of juicy slices of watermelon and seed-spitting contests, honest sweat running from one’s brow as you finish hoeing out another row of corn, the delicious coolness of a plunge into a mountain swimming hole, lightning bugs showing their stuff as light gives way to night, corn on the cob fresh from the field, a simple supper of cold cornbread and buttermilk after a big meal at mid-day, running barefooted with feet about as tough as shoe leather, and idling away some wonderful hours on a river bank while waiting for a catfish to bite.

I want to focus on the catfishing at present, because some of the most memorable and meaningful times of my boyhood involved this simple recreation. The first fish of appreciable size I caught was a channel cat, and according to Daddy, who was present when the fish took a worm intended for bream, my reaction was priceless. Once I managed to land the whiskered giant with the long cane pole I was using, and after a tug of war which threatened to see the fish pull me from the shoreline into the water (I solved that by straddling a stump, heedless of my private parts but knowing I was well anchored), apparently my reaction was: “Boy, catching a big one sure makes a fellow’s knees shake.” Whether or not I said that, and I’m sure I did, I don’t ever want to lose that sense of boyish wonder and excitement associated with fishing.

Daddy was my fly fishing mentor and main “encourager” when it came to fishing, but he pretty much disdained warm water species. We caught a few messes of crappie and went on the very rare family camping/fishing trip (that’s when I caught the big catfish), but mainly he left me to my own devices in this regard. The Tuckaseigee River was quite close to our home, and on days when chores were finished and I didn’t have blackberries to pick or lawns to mow, I’d head for the river. Occasionally Grandpa Joe would accompany me, but more frequently I went by myself. However, I had every expectation of meeting a grizzled old river rate named Al Dorsey when I made such trips, and over time he became a meaningful figure in my young life. A sketch of his life and a tribute to him follows.

AL DORSEY

Growing up in Bryson City it was my privilege to know a number of interesting and unusual characters. Al Dorsey had to be the strangest of them all. His offbeat personality and bizarre lifestyle held great allure for boys. Frequent admonitions from my parents to the effect “you don’t need to be hanging around that dirty old man,” together with their refusal to explain why they felt that way, merely added to his mystique. An old river rat who was pretty much a stranger to soap and water, I just assumed that to my parents he was a local incarnation of some of the stranger or more unsavory of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River characters. Little did I know, or did others in the bevy of youngsters who spent appreciable time with him fishing in the badly polluted Tuckaseigee River, just how sordid a background he had or how checkered old Al’s life had been.

I knew him mostly through fishing. Every year when summer rolls around and when a string of miserably hot, humid days leave even the high country sweltering in midday misery, my thoughts wander back to yester-youth and the simple joys of catfishing with old Al. I had a whole bunch of “holes” in the Tuckaseigee where I matched wits with Mr. Whiskers, although none of them were more than a mile upstream or down from the Everett Street Bridge. On the north side of the river, where Sim DeHart’s dry goods store abutted the bridge on one side of the street and the local pool hall on the other, there was another appealing part of the overall catfish equation. That was where the Al Dorsey kept his home-made, flat-bottomed boat chained to a tree. He maneuvered the boat with a long pole rather than a paddle, and his stretch of river was a relatively short one circumscribed by rapids at either end of a stretch of flat water less than a mile in length.

As I write these words I am looking at the front page of the Bryson City Times for November 6, 1925. The lead news for that week focused on Dorsey, revealing an aspect of his life unknown to me until long after I reached adulthood. The headline reads:  “Al Dorsey, Slayer of Muse, Gets Sentence of Ten Years. Was Tried for Second Degree Murder.” The subhead, in an interesting bit of editorializing mixed in with news, states “Sentence Regarded as Extremely Light.” When I first read this account, realization finally dawned why my parents frequently suggested it would be best to avoid Al’s company, never mind that Dad did acknowledge Dorsey was masterful when it came to catching catfish.

My thinking, throughout boyhood and well beyond, had been that they discouraged any connection with old Al simply because he always looked unkempt; drank more than a bit; wore a visible layer of grime on his ankles and lower legs instead of socks; and dressed in a somewhat unusual fashion for hot weather with overalls, long johns, a long-sleeved shirt, and brogans. The clodhoppers were worn on feet which substituted a layer of grime for socks. Not surprisingly, when one was downwind of Al the air tended to be pungent indeed. Yet I found him, as did other boys who spent appreciable time along the river bank, endlessly fascinating. He was kind to apprentice river rats, kept a watchful eye on our youthful shenanigans, and readily shared his matchless knowledge of the fine art of catching catfish.

Interestingly, the newspaper account makes no mention whatsoever of the circumstances behind the affray although it goes into lurid detail about the actual event. However, oral history, conversations over the years with contemporaries of Dorsey, and the official transcript of the trial fill in the blanks. Dorsey discovered an engineer who worked for the Southern Railway and boarded in Bryson City, Troy Muse, was having an affair with his fetching red-headed wife, nee Minnie Watkins. He reportedly said: “If I’d been able to lay my hands on a gun when I caught them, I’d have shot the son of a bitch right then, and I’ll do it yet. You wait and see.” When weeks passed and nothing happened, most folks aware of the situation believed things had calmed down.

That was the situation on September 21, 1925, when hundreds of local residents were celebrating an evening topping off a lovely Indian Summer day by attending a Mutt and Jeff show being held under a tent just up Main Street from the town square. It was at that point, according to multiple witnesses, that Dorsey approached Muse, stuck out his hand, and made comments to the effect that they should shake and forget their differences. As they shook hands Dorsey produced a revolver and shot Muse in the abdomen at point-blank range. They then struggled, with Dorsey emptying his pistol and hitting Muse a second time in the knee. It was only at this point that Muse pulled his handgun and fired at a fleeing Dorsey. My father, a teenager at the time, was attending the nearby show and was among the first to arrive at the scene. He said Muse left the scene without saying a word, while Dorsey, who was slightly wounded in the shoulder, moaned “Oh Lordy, he’s killed me. I’m kilt. I’m kilt.”

Local physician Dr. A. M. Bennett initially attended Muse, who had made his way to his lodgings at the Cooper House, where Horace Kephart spent so many years. Realizing he needed specialized treatment, Bennett recommended getting Muse to Asheville’s Mission Hospital as quickly as possible. A special Southern Railways train conveyed him there but he died within hours.

In a marked departure from today’s judicial proceedings, the trial occurred only six weeks later. Local emotions ran high; so much so that the impaneled jurors came from neighboring Macon County rather than being selected from Swain County residents. Most people felt that Dorsey should be tried for first degree murder, and when the solicitor “positively refused,” notwithstanding the grand jury having returned a true bill, those in attendance, as well as many in the legal community, were outraged. Dorsey was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to “not over ten nor under eight years at hard labor in the state penitentiary.” Apparently his time of actual imprisonment was actually shorter, because the 1930 census shows him living in Bryson City.

My acquaintance with Al came long afterwards. He had been born about as close to having a silver spoon in his mouth as turn of the century Swain County could offer. His parents, J. W. and Ophelia Dorsey, whose graves lie alongside that of their son, were affluent pillars of the community with the father being a respected local merchant. Their home on Everett Street catty-cornered across from the Presbyterian Church was one of the most sumptuous residences in all of Swain County, and that was where, upon release from prison, Al returned to live with his parents in what had, at one time, been a residential showplace, but by the time I knew Dorsey his parents were long deceased and their place of grandeur, with all its cupolas, intricate woodwork, and sweeping porches, had reached a state of decrepitude. Situated not more than a couple of hundred yards from my parents’ Black Hill home, I walked by it every time I went to town or school, and even as a youngster sometimes wondered about the circumstances behind its faded glory.

As a boy though, all I knew, from the time I was 10 or 11 on into my mid-teens, was that being around old Al was pure pleasure. Throughout the summer he fished, day and night, in the waters of the Tuckaseigee. During the day he ran trot lines and throw lines, did a lot of pole watching on the bank, and also made his way up and down the river in his john boat. At night he fished from the bridge.

To a starry-eyed boy enchanted by anything connected with hunting or fishing, his knowledge of the river had a mysterious, magical quality about it. Disreputable though his past may have been, to his considerable credit he kept an eye on a number of boys who, like me, spent a lot of time fishing and piddling around at the river. Similarly, he willingly, even eagerly shared his knowledge of how to catch catfish, something at which he was a true master.

Everyone in town knew him, and at some point during my close acquaintance with Al he accomplished something which was the talk of local barber shops at the gang at Loafer’s Glory for weeks. One night while fishing off the Everett Street Bridge he hooked a mighty catfish on the only decent rig he owned, a steel rod-and-reel outfit equipped with nylon line. An epic battle ensued, with scores of people lining the sidewalk on the bridge as it unfolded. After the better part of a half hour Al managed to ease the fish close towards shore adjacent to Conley’s Drug Store (the area where today’s town office is located) and then, carefully working the rod around a series of street lights which set atop the bridge railing, he made his way down the bank at the south end of the bridge. As the catfish wallowed in the shallows he waded into the river, ran his arm through its mouth, and wrestled it out onto the bank. It weighed upwards of 50 pounds, a veritable giant for a mountain stream.

At some point, long after my halcyon days of innocent youth spent in his company, the decaying mansion in which he lived reached a point of no return. A local physician, Dr. William Mitchell, bought the property, razed the building, and erected an office. Dorsey moved to a nearby slab shack nearby and somehow eked out a living. Then, in the final decade of his life, a simple act of charity wrought a glorious change in old Al.

The recently widowed wife of a local taxi driver gave him her deceased husband’s clothes. Somehow this small token of caring and concern awakened long dormant pride in Al. According to the lady, “from then on he started dressing up even though until that point I never knew him to wear a pair of shoes in the summer.” It was also during this time, late in Dorsey’s life, that he began attending First Baptist Church and was converted. A photograph of Al taken during this period shows a man whose appearance is at stark contrast with the one I knew. While he is sporting a few days’ worth of whiskers, otherwise he is neat, with his hair well combed and dressed in a nifty shirt and a sport jacket. According to the late Kay Wright Killibrew, he was readily accepted by church members and became a staunch, respected part of the congregation.

Old Al was one of those delightful characters, and today they seem to be in increasingly short supply, who made the Smokies of my boyhood such a wonderful place to come of age. This troubled, tattered soul may not have been the finest of role models, but he was a first-rate mentor when it came to one particular type of fishing. The man lent a degree of color to my youth which has only become more striking with the passage of time and the acquisition of additional knowledge about him. Whatever may have been his shortcomings and sins, my memories of him are filled with nothing but fondness. I will never hear Alison Krauss and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sing the grand bluegrass classic, “Catfish John,” without thinking of “Catfish Al” and being stirred by the lyrics, “I was proud to be his friend.” The line fits, because I was (and remain) proud of being a friend to Al.

His gravesite, unmarked for decades following his death in 1982, recently received a marker. Though simple and lacking either the size or ornate nature of many tombstones in Bryson City Cemetery, the engraving of a catfish on the stone bears mute but meaningful testament to the man for whom catfishing became a metaphor for life after his release from prison.

RECIPES FOR SUMMER

Roasted Garden Veggies

I really enjoy roasted vegetables, and much of one’s garden bounty lends itself to this type preparation. Just slice vegetables such as squash, zucchini, potatoes (require more cooking than most things), eggplant, whole green beans, sliced paste tomatoes (regular ones are too juicy), okra, or other things thin. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper or perhaps Greek seasoning if you prefer, and pop in the oven atop a greased cookie sheet. Watch carefully and check for doneness. If you want a crisp top turn the heat up to broil for a few seconds when the vegetables are ready. Serve piping hot.

Jim’s “New” Potato Salad

I enjoy potato salad at any time of the year, but my favorite way is to make it with new potatoes. There’s something about their texture and taste I find particularly appealing. Here’s how I make it, although I must confess I don’t have precise measurements for the simple reason I don’t use them.

3 to 6 boiled eggs (depending on how much you want to make)—once they have boiled, and I do this in advance, set aside to cool.

Three to four times the volume of eggs in new potatoes. Cut into chunks and boil until just tender. Drain and set aside while you peel the eggs.

Chop or cut the eggs into pieces in a large bowl and then add the boiled potatoes.

Cut up sweet pickles to taste (I like a lot of pickles in my salad) and add to the eggs and potatoes.

If you like raw onion, chop up a large Vidalia onion and add to the bowl.

Add mustard and mayonnaise to taste—I just squeeze mustard out of a container until it looks like enough, add several tablespoons of mayonnaise, and stir everything up. If I need more mayo or mustard I add it.

Salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle the finished potato salad with a really hefty sprinkling of paprika. Stir the paprika in and place the bowl in the fridge to chill.

Tomato Salsa

Salsa with corn chips is a favorite munch of mine, especially if the chips are made with blue corn or are of the type where you really taste the corn.  Here’s a salsa which is simple and scrumptious.  It’s the perfect way to use a few dead ripe tomatoes which will go bad in a day or two if not worked up.

1 ½ pounds ripe tomatoes
1 small red or sweet onion, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper (I leave this out because bell peppers don’t like me, but most folks love ‘em)
2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon (more if you want additional “heat”) seeded and finely chopped jalapeno
Juice of ½ lime
Salt, to taste

Coarsely chop tomatoes, seeding if you wish (I don’t—too much trouble).  In a medium bowl, blend the other ingredients, stir in tomatoes, and chill.

TIP:  You can use this salsa to make guacamole.  Just add avocado, some more onion, lime juice, a bit of cumin powder, and sour cream.  Blend with salsa and you have great guacamole.

Anna Lou’s Cobbler

Anna Lou was my mother and an absolute wizard in the kitchen. She enjoyed cooking, made the finest fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, and regularly during my boyhood put up more than 400 quarts of fruit and vegetables. Her recipe for cobbler was the essence of simplicity, and one of its virtues is that you can use so many fruits and berries to make it. Among those I have personally prepared are strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, dewberries, blackberries, huckleberries, peaches, and apples. If available, combine two or three types of berries in a single cobbler and maybe include some peach slices as well.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter or margarine (melted)
2-4 cups fresh berries or fruit

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and milk; stir briskly with a wire whisk until smooth. Add melted butter and blend. Pour batter into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Pour berries (amount depends on your personal preference and whether you want a cobbler with lots of dough or one with lots of berries) evenly over batter. Do not stir. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.

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