Category Archives: Notes from the Southwest Corner

Selected columns written for the Lebanon, Tennessee Democrat newspaper from 2007 to 2017 about living in the Southwest.

A Moment of Scary

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 21, 2009 – A story by J.R. Lind about vandalism in a Cedar Forest cemetery ran last week in The Democrat. The vandal’s motive for digging into a grave was unclear.

I thought of the Mel Brook’s movie, “Young Frankenstein,” as Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman dug in the graveyard for the body to become “Frankenstein.” I e-mailed J.R., “They were looking for a brain.”

The story also brought memories.

In 1958, I started summer work with the City of Lebanon. After several early assignments, I worked at the water works on Hunter’s Point Pike with Truman Garrett and Elmer Elkins.

I hoped to drive a bush hog tractor but was told I was too small. My big friends, Henry Harding, Charles “Fox” Dedman, and others were assigned the bush hogs. With a twist of logic I did not grasp and after shoveling sand in the filter system at the waterworks, I went to the Cedar Grove Cemetery.

In that era, digging graves was accomplished by hand. When not digging graves, mowing and trimming the 35 acres was the bulk of our work. The two permanent workers, “Mister Bill” and “Dub” (I apologize for not knowing their last names. I’m not sure I ever did) took me under wing. They were pleasant, interesting, and fun.

Mr. Mitchell “Bush” Babb, the manager, lived adjacent to the cemetery. He reputedly was the only one who knew the grave locations after a fire destroyed some cemetery records. I was impressed Mr. Babb had played against Ty Cobb in the Tennessee-Alabama League before the Georgia Peach went on to fame in the majors.

Once I got over my queasiness, I found the cemetery interesting. I studied grave markers, especially the older ones.

The Mitchell-Smith monument was impressive. My father had told me about the huge granite slab’s (roughly four by six by eight feet) trip to its final resting spot. He was “seven or eight” when the monument arrived at the train depot where Shenandoah Mills now stands. He snuck away to watch part of the two-week process. After offloading from the flatbed, the monument was set on four wooden logs, roughly a foot square. The logs were slicked with “octagon” soap. The four horses or mules pulled the monument forward while the workers rotated the logs from back to front.

There were many other interesting stories I gathered from the markers.

Sonny Smithson, a seminary student at David Lipscomb joined me the next summer. His father was the preacher at the College Street Church of Christ when it was actually located on the corner of College Street and Gay Street. Ironically, the original city cemetery was located there and until the interred were relocated to Cedar Grove when it opened in 1846.

In 1962, our last summer, Sonny and I became efficient in cemetery work and learned about graves “sinking.” Some sunk immediately after the burial due to the dirt compacting. Others sunk later when the natural decay set in, especially in the older graves, some suddenly when an air pocket collapsed. We tread over the grounds without temerity.

One June day, Mr. Bill sent us to clear out an area in the northwest corner. As normal, we had gathered for the day’s work at the small stone building in the opposite corner..

With “lively lads” on our shoulders, we trekked across the cemetery on the shortest route: pretty much a straight line, walking over graves with no concern. I was in the lead. Just after I walked over a grave (we later determined the grave was created in 1923), I turned to say something to Sonny. As he stepped on the middle of the grave, one of those air pockets took the opportune moment to collapse. Sonny went down into the depression about two feet and turned ashen through a Tennessee summer tan. He cleared what seemed to be about six feet straight up. Before he hit the ground, we realized what had happened. But for a split second, graveyard ghost stories came rushing back to both of us.

Sonny left work early that summer to go back to the seminary. I am sure it had nothing to do with the sinking grave incident. I worked through the rest of the summer.

Now when I have to submit a resume or biographical summary, I include “gravedigger” as part of my experience. It has proven to separate me from the pack, and I always know when someone has read my input in its entirety.

Notes from the Southwest Corner – 012

As i edit this post from my past Democrat columns, i still miss Erma Baird, and all of those folks, now over that bridge, who were like family back home those many years ago. Life goes on and seems to come back to me in my older years. It was a lovely way to grow up, and those folks like Erma, Charlie, and Sharry made it that way.

SAN DIEGO – This has been a difficult column to write. Numerous things from my perch in the Southwest corner and far away in Lebanon made my past weekend (January 18-20), poignant with significant personal events.

Working backwards, Sunday was moving day. Our daughter Sarah, after a semester of commuting to San Diego State University from our home, moved into a dormitory for her second semester. I once again experienced the difficult art of letting go.

Her departure was rough on the old man. While many have experienced a child leaving home, my role as the at-home parent, a.k.a mister mom, and at a substantially older age than most parents, made Sarah’s departure particularly emotional.

The day before, Saturday, January 19, I became an old man according to the Beatles. On their “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band,” album, McCartney sang “When I’m 64.” I reached that magic number. Robert E. Lee reached birthday 200.

Friday, the beginning of this significant weekend, the initiating event was sad. My mother, Estelle Jewell, called to inform me Erma Baird passed away.

Mrs. Baird, her husband Charlie, and their daughter, Sharry Baird Hagar, have been a part of my life, literally since I was born. Sharry, Henry Harding, and I were baptized on the same Sunday at the Lebanon First Methodist Episcopal Church South on East Main in the late spring of 1944.

Erma is one of my wife’s favorite people in Lebanon.

On one trip to Lebanon, Charlie and Erma came to call while we visited my parents. Mischievously, Erma smiled and said, “I have something for you.” She gave Maureen pictures of a play the Methodist Youth Fellowship produced when I was fourteen. Many friends were co-stars but somehow I had been chosen to play Jesus as a young boy.

Maureen focused on this goofy looking guy at center stage, complete with a page boy wig, knee-length toga, and madras Bermuda shorts showing underneath as he sat spread-legged on a stool. I am not sure Maureen has ever completely recovered from laughing at the photo.

Erma, of course, loved the reaction.

The women of the “greatest” generation, as labeled by Tom Brokaw, were an incredible group of people. Their role through the Depression, World War II, and its aftermath was the synthesis for change. They balanced being a housewife and mother with pioneering equality in the workplace. They were strong; they were supportive; they were always busy.

Erma Baird had all the characteristics of the women of her generation. She was also one of the sweetest, loving women who ever walked the face of the earth. It seemed to me she loved everybody and could always find something good about any person or any situation.

She was that way when I can first remember her in my life, and she was that way when I visited her just before Christmas.

Even though, I am some 2,000 miles from Lebanon, the impact of losing Mrs. Baird hit me hard.

In the middle of all of these significant events, my daughter Blythe informs me my grandson Sam has spoken his first words, “Kitty Cat,” and is obviously connecting the word to the two felines who reside with him. It was a big day for the Jewell household. We are informed of Sam’s “firsts” almost daily, but a baby starting to talk is a giant step.

Years ago, a great deal of this weekend’s events would have washed over me. I would have kept on “chooglin’” along as Creedence Clearwater Revival exhorted me to do.

But late that Sunday evening, I sat before the fading embers in the family room fireplace and reflected: The world continues to change with significant events. Letting go of children, getting older, losing friends who have completed life’s cycle, and welcoming new friends into the cycle is constant. If all of us can deal with the cycle as have Erma and Charlie Baird, my parents, and many, others of that generation in Lebanon, we will be all right.

Notes from the Southwest Corner – 012: Football, a Legacy Gone South

This is one of my favorite stories about my illustrious and extremely short football career. i have added a few comments in this revised edition. They are in green italics.

SAN DIEGO – On my second birthday, after my father returned from the war, my uncle, Alvin “Snooks” Hall, gave me a football. In my mother’s albums, there is a snapshot of me at four in my cowboy hat standing beside a little red wagon. In the middle of the wagon bed is the football.

Even though I played other sports, football was my passion. I played imaginary games in the yard. On Saturdays, I could hear the Castle Heights announcer calling the Saturday afternoon games. I was Doak Walker, the Heisman award winner from Southern Methodist University; the triple threat star Bob Waterfield of the Los Angeles Rams, who was also married to Jane Russell (my aspirations were high); and Bobby Lane, the feisty quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Then, there was Johnny Majors, the triple-threat, orange-jersey, white-pants, black leather high-top shoes who should have won the Heisman instead of Paul Hornung (in my 12-year old opinion), and Vanderbilt’s “The Chief,” Phil King were two of heroes.

My father took me to the Lebanon High games at the juncture of Fairfield Avenue, South Greenwood Street, and East High Street, urging me to scream the entire game.

We would watch the Sunday games on the black and white television. Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost.” announced the games. On the radio, I listened to the Commodores and the Vols as well as the Tennessee Tech and Middle Tennessee Thanksgiving games. Occasionally, we would go to Nashville and watch Vanderbilt play at Dudley Field.

At Lebanon Junior High, I played two years with one loss in 16 games. It was my acme in football. but I continued to play with some notoriety as “Mighty Mouse” at Castle Heights (Mike Dixon, The Cavalier sports editor gave me that moniker) while my friends were having the Blue Devil magic undefeated season in 1961.

As a junior, five-six, 135 pounds, I incongruously played blocking back and linebacker. We traveled to Baylor, just outside of Chattanooga for an afternoon game. My aunt and uncle, who lived there, arrived at half-time. I suspect Coach Jimmy Allen saw them waving to me. Regardless, I was sent in on defense in the third quarter.

A signal from the sidelines directed us from our normal “6-2” defense into a “7-1” alignment, seven down linemen and one linebacker. Using the same reasoning, which got me in trouble most of my life, I volunteered and stepped into a defensive guard position.

I split their right guard and tackle. Both were all-conference for two years. The guard weighed 240 pounds, the tackle topped off at 265.

I think I saw the quarterback licking his lips. As he called an audible, I rationally concluded they were going to run straight at me, deciding my only chance was to “submarine.” That meant I would dive low and hopefully split through the two mammoths in front of me.

Good idea. Unfortunately, the two giants in front of me also figured that out. They double- flopped on me, trapping me under more than 500 pounds of flesh and gear. I was spread eagle on the ground.

I squirmed and waved my arms as much as I could to breathe and to get the lummoxes off.

The halfback cut next to the massive pile with this puny linebacker underneath. As he cut, he tripped over my frantically waving left hand, falling forward for a one-yard gain.

As I retreated to the sideline, teammates pounded me on the back. Reaching the sideline, Coach Frank North rubbed my helmet. I could see my aunt and uncle smiling and cheering.

I thought, “If they only knew…but I won’t tell them.”

Yesterday, the San Diego Chargers played the Indianapolis Colts. As I write, the game has yet to be played. Amidst the hoopla, gauntlet of commercials, and incessant inane analysis, there will be some good football played.

The playoff game was in a dome, filled with fanatic, costumed crazies whooping as much to get on camera as to root for their team. The majority of the players far outweighed the two behemoths who flattened me 47 years ago. There will be more coaches and staff for each team than the players we had on the 1960 Tigers. The game was played in mid-January.

I will think how much more fun it was to get crunched by offensive linemen on a perfect autumn afternoon with a sparse crowd in Tennessee than it will have been watching the NFL extravaganza.

Of course, I will watch. Somewhere in the course of the game, I will think, “If they only knew…but I won’t tell them.”

Notes from the Southwest Corner – 011: Change

This was published around Christmas time quite a while ago, the day before 2008. i chose to publish it now, as it is in chronological order of the earlier efforts to recapture my time with my hometown newspaper. It also addresses change. Lebanon has changed since i wrote this column. It has grown. It is becoming more a suburb of Lebanon. They have widened and improved many roads, especially the interstates. Thus, traffic is much worse. They have torn down more of my memories. There are a lot of nice places and the town square has new life. The biggest change is my parents are gone, which means i can’t come up with excuses to go back more often, and my stays are shorter, much shorter. But i will be back, and hopefully, another dinner with Maureen, Henry and Brenda, Eddie and Brenda will occur again. It cannot be soon enough.

Tennessee in general and Lebanon in particular is not only a Christmas escape for me; it is a place to reflect on change. This year, the change, past, present, and future, seems more palpable.

Often, we refuse to accept change as inevitable. We spend post-Christmas creating New Year Resolutions, which we usually blow off in a week or so.

Just before Christmas, my wife and I shared a dinner at the Chop House with special folks. Change joined us for the evening.

Growing up, I spent almost as much time at the home of Henry Harding; his maternal grandparents, J. J. and Maude Arnold; and his parents, George and Virginia Harding, as I did at my own home. Henry remains my “best” friend. He and his wife Brenda joined us.

The couple’s troika was completed by Eddie and Brenda Callis. Eddie has been a close friend since we met in high school as sports competitors from Castle Heights and Lebanon High School. Brenda’s father, Jim Horn Hankins, recruited my father to work for at Hankins and Smith Motor Company in 1939, and they became partners in the late 1950’s. So Brenda and I have known each other pretty much all of our lives.

We spoke of families, children, grandchildren, and parents. We spoke of friends. We spoke of adventures growing up and shared stories of places we have been.

Essentially we talked about change.

We talked amidst change itself. My sister, Martha Duff, had played in this structure, now the Chop House, with her friend Kay Lucas, when it was the Castle Heights superintendent’s home, and Ralph Lucas served in that position.

Down the road, my mother played with the son of the original occupants of the Mitchell House, which Danny Evins so graciously renovated for Cracker Barrel’s headquarters. Further down on the original Castle Heights Avenue is the house my parents bought in 1942 when it was one of only two or three houses on the street and where they lived for sixty-one years.

On the dining area wall hung a picture of my brother, Joe, attired in a Heights jersey. A photo of me at the 1962 graduation dance hung in the opposite quarter. The placement was appropriate. Joe and I always seem to end up in opposite corners even in choice of homes: Joe in Vermont, me in the Southwest corner. We often reflect on how we have managed change differently.

At my age, change seems more important. I long for what use to be, overlooking the negative aspects of the past. The past seems more poignant. The need to share memories with my family, especially the new grandson, is strong.

Change is never what we expect it to be. The 1950’s predictions for the next century are comical looking at them from this end. Sometimes change is better than expected. Sometimes change is worse.

Growth, i.e. change, in Middle Tennessee is small compared to San Diego. A community of 100,000 has grown up about three miles south of our home since a large ranch estate was settled in 1995. The expansion of developments may soon extend to the Cleveland National Forest to the east.

The increase in population has produced traffic congestion. Water supply is more tenuous than ever. Utility rates have risen dramatically. Housing costs are astronomical. Politics has become more profitable and more divisive.

The plus side is convenience in shopping and dining. The developments are rife with parks, walking trails, nearby modern schools, and an increase in services.

When I see change in Lebanon, I winch with concern it may drive away many of the things in Lebanon I hold dear. However, it seems to me Lebanon has managed change pretty well since I left for the Navy in 1967. Good change without destruction of the past appears to have been the rule.

Dining with my life-long friends, it occurred to me they (and you folks who live here) have permanent connection to the past, which might explain the change management of the community. The sense of community is not strong in the Southwest corner. Change seems more precocious, more uncontrollable there.

Before this article is published, I will be back in the Southwest corner, attempting to manage change positively. If all goes well, I will return to Middle Tennessee several times in the next twelve months and find change continues to be positive here.

It’s a nice place to come home to. I hope that never changes.

Notes from the Southwest Corner – 010: Masirah, Oman: A Different Place

Most of this post is included in my book, Steel Decks and Glass Ceilings. i still find it amazing that women are subjected to such bizarre thinking that prevents them from making decisions for themselves.

SAN DIEGO –J.B. Leftwich’s column in The Democrat two Fridays ago provoked some memories of a land far away.

His column addressed change from his student days at Cumberland and today. He also discussed inequality towards women (more tactfully than I would) in the Muslim world and the recent news sensation of the polygamist offshoot of the Latter Day Saints.

I complimented J.B. on his column, and added I soon would tell him about women on the island of Masirah, Oman.

J.B., always with a sharp eye and ear for the news, suggested the topic was good fodder for a column. So here goes:

Masirah in 1983

Much of my last Navy deployment was spent anchored off the coast of Masirah. The USS Yosemite was sent there in 1983. What was to be a five-day repair mission for Battle Group Alpha, the USS Ranger (CV 61) and her escorts, turned into forty-five days and then another thirty days on station.

The ships moored alongside the anchored Yosemite. The repair and maintenance sessions lasted four days. Working port and starboard shifts (six hours on and six hours off), we accomplished what normally took more than two weeks.

We also played a role in the Ranger’s recovery from the fire in November. Six crewmen were killed. The carrier lost half of her power and maneuverability. Yosemite provided repair assistance and her asbestos removal team, making further repair of the damage possible.

Each Tuesday, we would halt most repair work and replenish. A C-130 would fly supplies from Diego Garcia to the former Royal Air Force base, which had evolved into an Omani base manned mostly by former RAF personnel. CH 46 helicopters from one of the battle group’s ships would ferry out the supplies. The small flight deck created for a short-lived drone helicopter program was too small for landing. Consequently, the ten- hour operation was conducted with loads being lowered to the deck by the helicopters.

I was the ship’s coordinator for the operations, which kept me from going ashore. However, several officers and senior enlisted were allowed to go ashore. The helicopters would fly them to the island after the first load and return them after the last.

A Different Place in Time

The stories brought back were astounding. The air base, located on the northern end of the island, was not too unusual except the British were very excited to have Americans visit, and their hospitality was unlimited.

The local culture, however, was a major shock to all who visited.

In 1904, the British ship, Baron Innerdale, went aground off of the Khuriya Muriya islands at the south end of Oman. The largest boat on board embarked 17 people and ended up on Masirah. The specifics are unknown, but a fight resulted in all of the boat occupants, except a boy passenger, being massacred.

Sultan Faisal of Oman learned of the incident, investigated, and executed a number of locals at the site of the massacre. Local legend says the sultan razed the village of Hilf and decreed no one on the island could have permanent housing for 100 years.

While the lack of permanent housing may be myth, it appeared to be the order of the local culture in 1983. Local village buildings were constructed of plywood sheets and cardboard. The Yosemite visitors noted it was like going back a 1000 years in time.

Most of us have seen the burqas worn by women in Afghanistan. The culture of Masirah in the early 1980’s was even more draconian concerning women. They were required to be covered, but instead of a veil, they had to wear soft leather contraptions down the middle of their faces. The idea was the leather would flop to one side or the other, allowing the woman to look at anyone only with one eye.

When women passed child-bearing age, they no longer were allowed to live inside the houses, such as they were. A husband could declare and effect a divorce by raising his hands above his head and clap while he turned around three times.

I was amazed at the juxtaposition. While the Yosemite was at the leading edge of women becoming an integral part of our military forces, we were next to a culture which had not advanced in hundreds of years.

I wondered then and I continue to wonder what those Omani men in the Masirah village thought as our young female officers in Navy uniforms mixed freely with the male officers.

3/3 027- 04/21/08