Monday, June 3, 2013

Fallen Heroes


SFC Aaron Henderson

Special Forces SFC Aaron Henderson is my friend. This Memorial Day was a sad reminder that on October 2, 2012 he was killed in action in Afghanistan. The actual injury occurred on September 30th when an IED went off during a mission, and he was rushed to Bagram, where after all attempts by our excellent military medical personnel, he died from his wounds on the 2nd. He was a member of 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group – Airborne.  In addition to being a decorated Soldier, Aaron was a good man.

Even though I normally write about Southern things and my love of college football (I guess that’s redundant), Aaron was about as country as they come. I would have never guessed he was born in Maine. He seemed more at home while based in the South, living on the Kentucky/Tennessee border. I think I only saw him once without his old Ford hat…

SFC Aaron Henderson and MAJ Tara Dixon in Iraq 2010

The website does an excellent job of summing up our fallen forces’ military history, and you can find SFC Henderson's record and awards there. I am so grateful that some Americans remember that we are still at war. Sometimes, it seems that all is well and things have calmed down, but our brothers and sisters are still deployed in deadly combat. Aaron was one of those brothers. He, like 6,648 other loyal members of our United States Armed Forces, gave the ultimate sacrifice in OIF and OEF. Aaron gave his life so you and I may enjoy the freedoms we have. A short tribute to Aaron and two other fallen heroes can be viewed at: .

I didn’t grow up with Aaron, and I certainly don’t know even a quarter of all the things he’s done for this country. We did, however, spend many months together in a very intense situation, and we became close friends. I am grateful to have known him. Aaron had a subtle sense of humor and was always smiling. He helped out whenever and however he could – no matter what. Don’t get me wrong, like all of our Special Forces, he was a badass. He was also a gentleman. Aaron was respectful and kind, and he also knew how to have a laugh every now and then. :~) I enjoyed everything from hanging out with him on the porch to the one time we were able to play volleyball together (and lose horribly). Aaron was a good man, missed by many.

This short post is intended to remind folks that we should never forget our heroes – from the American Revolution and World War I to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I am grateful for them all, and I do not take my freedom for granted.

Aaron – thank you; I love and miss you; and one day we’ll battle it out over a cornhole game once again.

Tara Dixon – deployed to Iraq, personally serving with my brother-in-arms, Aaron.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Navigating the Airport


Recently I had a 34minute layover between a flight landing in ATL – that’s Atlanta for anyone who isn’t Southern (or anyone who has never flown Delta). And, if you’ve been to Hartsfield Airport, you are well aware that a short layover is not good. For any of y'all that haven’t flown through ATL, this is how it works:

I’ll start with how the airport is organized. Hartsfield has Concourses A – E, the infamous Concourse T, and the “where did this come from” Concourse F. Here is the simple version1:

That’s just getting into the airport – adding in each Concourse map would make this way too long and redundant.  In this instance, my plane lands in Concourse D at Gate 44. The layout of each Concourse is that the extremes of numbers 1, 2 or 45,46 are at the far ends of each Concourse with the only way out being the middle. That is, A – D are basically straight lines. (Concourse E is a weird “T”; Concourse T is just weird; and we still don’t know what F is.)

Ok – back to the story: I land at the far end of D it’s 1:33pm and my connecting flight departs at 2:05pm (and, no, I had NOT booked the flight because I know better than to have booked such a short layover). My next flight is out of A, Gate 2. I run down the aisle to the middle of Concourse D; push past people on the escalator; have to decide whether to run and use the moving sidewalks or take the tram; power up the Concourse A escalator; and race all the way to the end where Gate 2 is located. I was actually praying for a delay. (Be careful what you pray for.) Lo and behold, as I am panting and sweating from the exertion, there is a delay - an hour. Now two. (Oh… and if you are seated behind say, Row 15, on the plane, you will never, ever de-plane in time to make that run because it takes every bit of your effort and time to make that next flight. Thank goodness I was in the front of Economy Class.) On the bright side of all the running and then the delay, I was finally able to get food.

These days you aren’t likely to get food on a plane. I mean, some of them don’t even offer food to buy, and I’ve now been on four flights where they won’t even come down the aisle with water, much less Coca~Cola or juice. It’s horrifying. You can’t bring water through security; you may have to race between gates not allowing you to buy the $6.00 12oz. bottle of water; and then the airlines have decided they won’t provide it for you either. What is this world coming to when you pay $400 for a plane ticket (or more) and can’t even get a glass of water? This problem I can’t fix.

However, I do have some ideas for fixing the Concourse-to-Concourse conundrum… The best, most practical one: they should make an express lane down each concourse aisle where if you aren't runnin’, you can't be in it. Move over tourists with 3hour layovers. Move over window shoppers. Move over people who are on their break hour from one of the million restaurants, shops and kiosks in the airport. Move over – because WE are coming through. Time is of the essence, people, and this is the fast lane. Would I like to stop and eat? Yes. Would I like to sit at the bar and watch the Dawgs play a quarter or two? Yes. Sadly, I can’t. I have a plane to catch… and it may as well be in another state. I am hustling. Please, please get out of the way.

Another even simpler idea is to just not allow people to book flights with less than an hour layover. Yes, I know some people will argue they want to get to their destination as quick as possible and use airports where 30-40 minutes is plenty of time to make a connection. Well, y’all can just rent your own private jet because those of us that book through and Travelocity take what we can afford. Sometimes, that means we don’t even see how tight those connections are – or we are delayed at our starting destination only to be stuck navigating a complicated, crowded metropolitan airport. Hell, the Atlanta airport is bigger than my hometown – at least by population. So, if you are a city unto yourself – Hartsfield, JFK, SFO, DEN (you know who you are) – then do NOT allow passengers to have short layovers. Please.

I have a few other ideas: One of them is to issue those cute li’l two-wheeled Segways to every passenger who needs a quick transit from one end of the airport to the other – whether due to inept booking or to delays prior to even landing at the airport. A second suggestion would be to cordon off all shoppers, tourists and lollygaggers. They just need their own li’l section to take all the time in the world to meander around doing nothing. Maybe instead of designated lung cancer rooms – that is, smoking sections – you could have “hangouts” for those fortunate folks with time to spare – aka the lollygaggers.

And finally the ultimate idea: use some of that research money to develop teletransportation. That may sound far off, but nobody thought Star Trek’s tricks of cell phones and computers would be real – yet now they are. Why can’t we shoot for “Beam me up, Scotty!”?


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Sport of Curling


It was recently pointed out to me that when I discussed non-football sports, I left out curling. I guess I left out a lot of winter sports – except for the X-Games, which has both winter and summer sports, and I addressed the under-televised X-Games. This led me to think about those winter sports – except hockey, which I clearly expressed my thoughts on that – and to address those winter sports in this post.

Let me start by saying, I actually like curling – for a sport seen on major (American) television once every four years during the Olympics. I remember the first time I saw a curling match. I don’t remember the exact year, but it had to be between 2003 and 2007. I was on a cardiac surgery rotation while in residency, and we were about to do a heart transplant. There was a delay such that the attending surgeon and myself were forced to wait for about 30 minutes in a small room in a very small hospital somewhere in the middle of Idaho. In the corner of the room, there was a tiny television (obviously, everything was small there) and the Winter Olympics were on with a Curling Qualifying Round as the highlight for the evening. Now, first of all, I didn’t even know what curling was and secondly, was shocked that this li’l known sport would be the highlight. It was fun to watch, though, and I soon found myself wanting to learn more about the sport.

The World of Curling Federation1 dates the sport back to the 1500’s, starting from Europeans throwing stones across ice as a pastime during the winter. Obviously, the current sport has a definitive form and a definitive set of rules. It first appeared in the Olympics in 1924. Basically, two teams of four face off throwing stones towards a “bull’s eye” down a lane of ice. Each player throws 2 stones, which are 19.1kg and made of a rare polished granite.2 The “Skip” is like the team captain. As the stone is thrown, two other players (primarily the “Lead” and “Second” unless they are throwing) will sweep the ice to make the stone go faster or slower and curl left or right.3 The order of throwing is Lead, Second, Vice and Skip, but it is the Skip who is giving instructions to the sweepers on how to sweep. Some excellent resources to learn more about curling can be found at the official USA website: and The Curling 101 website: . YouTube also has some good videos. Enough about curling…

Briefly, as to other sports I may have missed… Many of them just don’t get adequate mainstream coverage. Soccer, which is awesome, is starting to change some of that, but it has certainly been hurt by a deficiency of media representation in this country – unless, it’s the World Cup or Olympics. In that case, we’re all in (meaning we are watching the US Women’s Soccer team win games.) I love rugby – more on that later, though, because I have a Southern story involving a combination of rugby and an important day in American history. I also have some really hilarious anecdotes from my days as a player. Now, figure skating, speed skating, gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, martial arts, etc. – all of those take incredible dexterity, strength and endurance. I respect those athletes – but you can ditto the above statement. With the exception of professional boxing, they aren’t as often highlighted unless it’s a world championship or the Olympics. We could also talk about archery, volleyball, bobsledding, bull fighting – even bocci ball. I could get into discussing body building, scuba diving, cheerleading, cricket, darts, diving, equestrian, hand ball and log rolling. There’s kayaking, lacrosse, sailing, luge, racquetball, rock climbing and shooting. Let’s not forget surfing, weight lifting, polo, water polo and even the old fashioned tug-o-war. There are so many sports, and I intermittently follow many of them. I certainly respect these dedicated and self-sacrificing athletes laboring to master their chosen sport. However, I don’t avidly seek those events out or look out for every competition, news clip or update.

It’s just that…. well, those sports aren’t football, and that sport is still king of The South.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Random Commentary


Many folks would think a classic Southern song would involve Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. They are classic – no doubt. I, however, wanted to focus on a more humorous – and perhaps more clearly accurate summation of one part of The South. Ray Stevens is now known as a wonderful comedian and has achieved world-wide fame. However, when I was growing up, he was kind of a local boy – I‘ve seen him live a few times at the Expo and some other big agricultural-type events that I doubt he’d bother with these days. Nonetheless, he’s quite personable and has an excellent ability to tell a story. I’d like to break down one of them: Mississippi Squirrel Revival. Please note that his lyrics are in italics and my comments are in parentheses and NOT in italics. Also, please note that the commentary on the lyrics are purely my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of the singer/songwriter.

Well when I was kid I'd take a trip
every summer,
down to Mississippi.
To visit my granny in her ante bellum world.

(Here, I’d like to say it’s not uncommon to 1) call your grandmama “Granny” and 2) to spend extra time with the grandparents in the summertime. Also, there is no doubt Mississippi is rife with ante bellum life.)

I'd run barefooted all day long,
climbing trees free as a song.
One day I happened catch myself a squirrel.
I stuffed him down in an old shoebox,
(It was quite common to either catch an animal or shoot it – kind of depended on the day, your mood and what weaponry you had on you.) punched a couple holes in the top and when Sunday came,
I snuck him in the church.
I was sittin way back in the very last pew
(Commonly, we call ‘em “back row baptists.”)
showin him to my good buddy Hugh,
when that squirrel got loose
and went totally berserk!

Well what happened next is hard to tell.
Some thought it was Heaven others thought it was Hell.

(Without getting too political or into a religious debate, you’d be amazed at what one group thinks is “gospel truth” and another group thinks is outright blasphemy. The worst part is that they are usually quoting the same scripture and just in total disagreement over its meaning. As a child it was confusing. As an adult it is more confusing…)

But the fact that something was among us
was plain to see.
As the choir sang "I Surrender All"
the squirrel ran up Harv Newlan's coveralls
Harv leaped to his feet and said,
"Somethin's got a hold on me!"

(If this were a Pentecostal church, this would be a common exclamation … people would be excited not afraid.)


The day the squirrel went berserk,
In the First Self-Righteous Church

(I will insert a slight bit of provocative comment here to say that some – not all – churches are more concerned with their appearance and being “better than” rather than being in pursuit of having a relationship with God, bringing Heaven to earth, teaching the truth and reaching out to all people. It’s sad.)
in that sleepy little town of Pascagoula.
It was a fight for survival,
that broke out in revival.
They were jumpin pews and shouting Hallelujah!

Verse 2

Well Harv hit the aisles dancin and screamin
some thought he had religion
others thought he had a demon
Harv thought he had a weed eater loose
in his fruit of the looms.
He fell to his knees to plead and beg,
and that squirrel ran out of his britches leg,
unobserved to the other side of the room.

All the way down to the Amen pew
where sat Sister Bertha "Better than you"
(If you’ve been to church in The South, you know these rare but very real members of the congregation. If you are Sister Bertha, well… you know who you are and what happens next seems like karma.)
Who had been watching all the commotion
with sadistic glee.
Shoot, you should've seen the look in her eyes
when that squirrel jumped her garters and crossed her thighs.
she jumped to her feet and said,
"Lord have mercy on me!"
As the squirrel made laps inside her dress,
she began to cry and then to confess
to sins that would make a sailor blush with shame.

She told of gossip and church dissention,
but the thing that got the most attention
is when she talked about her love life
then she started naming names! 

(There are many things churches down South frown upon. Some disapprove of dancing for any reason – although that’s less common these days. Some disapprove of drinking for any reason – although the vast majority of the congregation do so…we just don’t talk about it at church. And many political battles go on in churches that are divisive and really violate the whole concept of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hopefully, we are getting away from such nonsense; preaching less hell fire and damnation; and preaching more love and communion.)


The day the squirrel went berserk.
In the First Self-Righteous Church
in that sleepy little town of Pascagoula.
It was a fight for survival,
that broke out in revival.
They were jumpin pews and shouting Hallelujah!

Verse 3

Well seven deacons and then the pastor got saved
and 25,000 dollars got raised.
And 50 volunteered for missions in the Congo
on the spot.
and even without an invitaion
there were at least 500 rededications.
And we all got rebaptised whether we needed it or not.

(I love that section although there's not much to comment on – except the sad hypocrisy in so many churches where appearances matter more than heart, where acts done out of duty occur more regularly than acts of pure love. Again, I think we are moving more and more away from that – gratefully.)

Now you've heard the Bible stories I guess
of how He parted the waters for Moses to pass.
All the miracles God has brought to this ol' world.
But the one I'll remember to my dyin day
is how he put that church back on the narrow way
with a half crazed Mississippi Squirrel

(Sometimes it takes an unusual shake-up to wake folks up. You know, we get quite patriotic when 9/11 happens or the Boston Marathon bombing or Sandy Hook…it doesn’t take long, though, for many of us to turn off our television and go back to worrying about playoffs and draft picks – which I love, don’t misunderstand – I guess I just wish the shake-ups were more lasting.

I’d like to think we are still unified in our stance against terrorism – DAILY.

I’d like to think we pray for our military every day – for we are still at war. After more than 12 years, we are still in a declared war. Teenagers today have never known an America in peacetime. Our men and women are still being killed in a war that will hopefully be over soon.

Our homeless rate and unemployment rate are both still unacceptable.

So…I’m glad sometimes an unlikely event like a squirrel getting loose in church can make a change in so many. It’d just be nice if that change lasted. I certainly don’t speak for the songwriter here, but that’s what this song makes me think about…when are we fooling ourselves that we are being good and faithful servants when all we’re doing is going through the motions? ...and what does it take to remind us how important it is to love one another and support one another?

I hope and pray we have a very real conviction to be patriotic, to love one another … to be unified.)

God bless The United States of America.


All song lyrics are by Ray Stevens

Quoted from :

Monday, April 29, 2013

Southern Silence


I have lived all over the country, spent time overseas and visited nearby and faraway places both. Once I moved out of The South, I spent most of my time in Baltimore, Portland and southern California. The thing I missed the most was the peaceful silence the Southland provides, and the silence isn’t just about quiet nights devoid of the loud busy-ness and eternal lights of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate many things about the city – wider food selection, better entertainment choices and a diversity of people, cultures and opinions. It's just...well...every now and then, I just like for everything to slow down and be silent. It's a healthy balance. 

Starting with the mornings, I have always enjoyed waking up to the sounds of birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees rather than a honking horn or traffic wreck. (I certainly enjoyed it more than waking up to the pager going off over and over again!) On mornings when I don’t have anywhere to rush off to, the soothing sound of a stream or just sitting quietly by the pond is the best meditation I know of. When I was in college, the campus was near a great waterfall coming off the Little River. It’s right up there near Mentone, AL. Actually, there are many waterfalls in that corner connecting Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. They are all beautiful. This one on Little River, though, was my sanctuary. I would make that hour long drive to just sit and listen or to pray or to cry. Whatever was going on, that river calmed me. I always felt better after spending some quiet time there. The only other river that has had that profound effect on me is the one running through a church camp in North Carolina called Living Waters. Anyone who visits that blessed place will immediately understand its appropriate name. Lastly, we also have shoreline in The South. Listening to those rhythmic waves without the extraneous addition of city sounds is like a lullaby as I fall asleep…

Sleeping in The South is blissful. The sounds of crickets chirping and frogs croaking are home to me. It’s especially peaceful while camping. Being out under the night stars – which you can actually see without all the competing big city lights – is gorgeous. Add to that the orchestra of the night sounds, and it’ll put you right into a deep sleep. There’s an underappreciated bonus of the Southern nights, too: the humidity. Yes, I know many people despise humidity and think of it as a downside to The South. I, however, think of it as a big ol’ hug. Those warm Southern nights wrapped in humidity and quiet darkness made me feel completely protected and safe to sleep soundly. When I was growing up, I used to go to our family’s beach house quite often. It’s in a tiny town that doesn’t even have a jiffy station (7/11, convenient store). The lack of bright businesses operating late at night made that beach so clear and beautiful – and silent. I used to walk outside under the stars and moonlight and heard nothing but the waves lapping on the shore. Some of my fondest memories are of those late night walks and when I was actually dedicated enough to get up early enough to walk in the sunrise – again, so peaceful, so quiet.

Of course, speaking of the silent South wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our unwritten rules. While it is true that everybody knows everything about everybody, we don’t talk about it – not publicly anyway. The secrets of The South are infamous – from the hidden passages used during the Civil War to the Underground Railroad. We try to keep some things under wraps – like our favorite fishing hole, a hole-in-the-wall pub where foreigners never appear, and our sweet spots for hunting. When foreigners come on down to visit, we have a way of taking them to places that are fascinating to them and seem like peeking in on the secret lives of Southerners, but we all use the same places and protect the real secrets, silently protecting our history, our treasures, our way of life. And lest I forget, we are taught from a very young age, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

The heritage of silence in The South goes back at least to when Europeans started colonizing the area. Whether we are protecting secret ingredients in our coveted Southern cuisine or staying silent on private family matters, The South has a culture of keeping its mouth shut about a lot of things. It’s one of my favorite benefits of being down here: the sweet, soulful silence of the Southland.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hard Work


Growing up in the South, work was always revered – particularly hard work. Laboring to the point of wanting to maybe eat and then pass out immediately was valued. It showed dedication, loyalty – even respect in some ways. Making work doubly important and necessary even at a young age was the fact that I grew up on a farm. If you can walk, you can work – no matter how young. (I’m pretty sure the child labor laws are exempt for farmers.) And hey, even if you can’t walk – broken leg or whatever – you can still sit on stool and shuck corn or shell peas. When you are actively working a farm, everybody works.

For example, it would not be unusual for me to be in my night clothes (t-shirt and underwear) out in the middle of the highway at 3am helping my Mama and Daddy herd cattle back into the pasture when a fence went down. It’s also not uncommon in The South to drive by a house where 3-4 family members are on the back porch with shot guns aimed at a coyote or pack of wild dogs threatening their pigs or chickens or cattle, and those family members may range in age from 5 years old to 88 years old. When we harvested on the farm, everybody had to help especially with the vegetables we were gonna can or freeze – corn, peas, snap beans, peanuts, etc. That meant shucking corn, silking corn, shelling peas, snapping beans… Sometimes it seemed painful, but other times it wasn’t so bad. You could visit or watched television while doing peas or beans. The peanut picking was quick and easy – and worth it for the boiled peanuts to come! The corn…there was nothing fun about corn. The only thing worse than putting up corncobs and creamed corn was cleaning game or fish. Plucking and gutting birds and scaling and gutting fish are tedious and messy. (Gaming/fishing is a totally different topic, so more on that another day.)

Now, we didn’t just have crops to tend to on the farm. We raised beef cattle, mostly two breeds: Polled Herefords and Limousin. I have entire albums containing pictures of me at 7, 8, 9 years old – tiny li’l thing – leading around a 2000 lb steer, heifer or bull. See, part of running a beef farm is advertising your product to the buyers. It’s important to note here that the buyers fall into several categories. Some buyers want calves or heifers with good pedigrees. Some buyers want sperm from prized bulls known to produce healthy and meaty offspring. Of course, some buyers just want the beef – the meat from the slaughtered cattle. One way to show buyers how good your product is involves taking your best steer, heifer and/or bull to compete in cattle shows. They’re kind of like beauty pageants for bovines. Basically, you spend months getting up early (and then returning after school) to train the animal: get the animal accustomed to wearing a halter, following on lead and standing a certain way when the judge comes by to feel him/her up – a necessary rump and loin pat-down to ensure you aren’t making the animal look better with the various shampoos and hair gels we used. (Oh yes, I styled my bovines’ hair.) Eventually, it’s time for a local show, maybe at the County Fair. Once we had success there, we took the prized cattle on to the State Fair. If they were very impressive, we took them to a national cattle show. My very first heifer was named Sweet Pea. She was one of the good ones – not too difficult to train and very gentle. At the time I was 7 years old. She won at the National Limousin Heifer Show. I ended up on the front of a magazine with a trophy as tall as I was. Of course, the down side of showing cattle was cleaning poop, getting kicked and chasing one that got away from you. That was part of farm life, though, and it was definitely not my favorite.

Most Southerners, but particularly the farmers, have a large backyard garden. Some years we had one that nearly filled the entire backyard. What comes with a garden is weeding; checking each day to pick the vegetables and fruits that are ripe; putting up any of the vegetables that you aren’t gonna eat right away; and best of all, eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day. I loved our meals growing up. Over at Granny and Granddaddy’s house, Monday thru Friday dinners (lunch) were: a meat like fried chicken, ham or fried liver; field peas; tomato gravy – soooo good; rice; greens, which may be mustard, collards or turnip; hand-made, buttermilk biscuits; maybe some kind of corn or beans or some other vegetable side; cornbread – but the flat, corn-pone type of corn bread; a bowl of cucumbers and Vidalia onions in vinegar beside each plate; and of course, freshly sliced tomatoes – just add salt. For dessert, a cobbler or pecan pie or maybe just a big ol’ slice of fresh watermelon (again, just add salt.) The garden duties were definitely worth the sacrifice.

For a time we also had chickens. Tending chickens is pretty easy as long as you maintain the fencing around and above to keep out the hawks, otherwise, no chickens. In the morning, I would go out and throw some feed around and collect the eggs. I took a hoe – always. That may seem like an odd tool when tending chickens. However, snakes really like chicken eggs. It was not uncommon to find some long snake with a big lump or two halfway down his body. That’s when the hoe comes in to play – sharp edge, long handle – good weapon to chop a snake’s head off and be on your merry way. Fresh eggs are good, too, so I didn’t mind that duty either, and as a bonus, I spent time with the FDA learning to judge chickens and grade chicken eggs – wanna make sure your grocery store isn’t giving you Grade A instead of Grade AA? I’m your girl.

In addition to the hard work of farm life, Southerners - whether farmers or not - value hard work. Thus, while all my family members are quite generous, it was important to them to instill a sense of hard work in each of us. One of my favorite stories occurred when I was about 3 years old. In addition to farming my Granddaddy Dixon owned a hardware, furniture and appliance store. We visited there almost every day it was open. At that time Granddaddy had one of those old timey Coca~Cola machines in the back of the hardware. It was the kind where you put in a quarter, opened the door and pulled out a bottled Coke. It was sweet! So…it’s early afternoon, and Mama brings me into the store to visit Granny and Granddaddy. I run over to Granddaddy and ask him if I can have a Coca~Cola. He says I have to earn it. :~) He has me throw some empty boxes out the back door and run around with a duster – not that I actually accomplish any dusting running up and down the aisle. I’m sure I might have hit a couple of items with the duster…probably not more than that. Granddaddy didn’t actually expect me to do much; he just wanted to make a point about working. (Granddaddy’s favorite saying is, “Work in a hurry. Work in a hurry.”) Anyway, once I finish “working,” Granddaddy says I can have a Coke. Before he gets over to get me a quarter, 3 year old Tara pushes a stool to the cash register, opens it up, and then… I look up and announce to the entire store – customers and all – “Who all wants a Coca~Cola?” I was ready to get out all the quarters necessary to treat us all! Like I said, generosity runs in the family.

The bottom line is that all across The South and especially in my family, pitching in and working is what we do. The first thing my Grandmama said to me when we heard Daddy had died was, “OK, let’s start cleaning this house. The visitors will start arriving soon… and it’ll help keep your mind off of it.” It did. Ever since then when I’ve received bad news, if I wasn’t working, I found work to do.

Now, I don’t know how much comes from generations repeating, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” I don’t know how much comes from generations of farmers needing all hands working just to survive. What I do know is that we work – some way, some how. Just like Granddaddy always says, “Do you know how to spell ‘luck’? It’s W-O-R-K.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Southern Heroes - The Flying Tiger


The South is proud to have produced many American Heroes. One such Southern Hero is 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch. Learning Upchurch’s story comes with a fascinating history of a very unique Fighter Squadron. Upchurch was a member of the famed 74th Fighter Squadron – The Flying Tigers.
Before the United States entered World War II, there were Americans deeply involved in the war already. Some Americans volunteered and joined Allied Forces, enlisting in British or French Military Units. Then there was the American Volunteer Group whose members were serving to protect China from the brutal ongoing Japanese attacks there. While the 74th was still within the AVG, they had an unprecedented 8:1 kill ratio. Once the US entered the war in 1941, the AVG was disbanded and the 23rd Fighter Group was formed. It contained three squadrons – one of which was the 74th Fighter Squadron. It should also be noted that technically, at this time the 23rd (and thus the 74th) belonged to the Army – the Army Air Force. (The Air Force as we know it today was officially made an individual branch of the US Military in 1947. The current 74th Fighter Squadron is now part of the US Air Force.)
The 74th Fighter Squadron was originally designated as a Pursuit Squadron but was redesignated to a Fighter Squadron (and then specifically a Single Engine Fighter Squadron) in 1942 and was sent to Asia along with the rest of the 23rd Fighter Group. The Squadron flew P-40 Warhawks/Tomahawks and P-51 Mustangs – all with the signature shark teeth painted on the nose, conveniently right where a 50 Caliber machine gun peeks out. Over the years both planes had a variety of weapon configurations but usually had wing mount machine guns – sometimes 2/side, sometimes 3/side, and eventually, they became the first squadron ever to test and use the air-to-ground missile in combat. Unfortunately, the missiles were clunky and largely inaccurate at that time. As for personnel, the 74th Fighter Squadron had 2 Majors, 18 Lieutenants, 1 Master SGT, 2 Tech SGTs, 7 Buck SGTs, and 35 Corporals and Privates.
The 23rd Fighter Group had an Area of Operation that included China, Burma, Indochina (Vietnam), Formosa (Taiwan) and Thailand. The 74th Fighter Squadron valiantly fought off the Japanese and during their service in air combat destroyed 124 Japanese aircraft. They destroyed 143 Japanese aircraft on the ground, sunk 43,000 tons of shipping, and killed over 7000 Japanese military. They were decorated with the Distinguished Unit Citation and earned 4 Campaign Streamers in World War II. Of course, there were casualties. The 74th Fighter Squadron lost 40 men: 7 ground crew and 33 pilots. Four pilots were shot down in air combat; 23 were shot down by ground fire; and 5 crashed due to weather condition.
This brings us to 2nd LT Upchurch who was assigned to the 74th Fighter Squadron. The entire unit was referred to as “The Flying Tigers”, and Upchurch was known as “The Flying Tiger from High Falls.” He was from a small town in North Carolina in Moore County. Following a successful combat mission near the mountains of Hunan while flying a P-40 Fighter plane, he encountered difficult weather conditions and crashed into the side of a mountain. We now know 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch died on October 6, 1944, but back then he was Missing in Action.
Unbeknownst to his squadron, the Chinese locals in the Guidong County saw the crash and hiked 4 days to get up the mountain and try to rescue Upchurch. The Chinese were very fond of all of the squadrons in the 23rd Fighter Group. Without them, they would have faced decimation and destruction. Once the Guidong residents reached the crash site, they found both the plane and the pilot in ruins. Nonetheless, they recovered what they could, carefully cleaned him, wrapped him in red silk and, as is only reserved for heroes, buried him in a 7-inch thick coffin. The funeral service was for that of a Hero – with prayers, fireworks and rice wine. His grave was in a sacred place on Santai Mountain and was marked with a large wooden cross with Chinese writing loosely translated as “American Pilot of The Flying Tigers.” The locals had no way of identifying him other than as a part of the American military who were trying to save China and defeat Japan. For over 60 years, the Guidong County people cared for his grave, and each year on “Tomb-Sweeping Day” they would lay flowers on his grave and pay their respects.
World War II had an estimated 78,000 MIAs. The case for missing 2nd LT Upchurch broke in 2005 with the help of Guidong residents and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The Chinese still wanted to find out who the honored pilot was. Researchers carefully uncovered the remains, and a local resident named Mr. Huang was called to identify them. Mr. Huang was 15 when the crash occurred, and he recognized the pilot’s harness among other things. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command tested the remains, confirmed via DNA that it was Upchurch and returned the remains to his family in North Carolina. That was April 6, 2006.
2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch was buried in Carthage, NC with full military honors. His remaining family members were present – in addition to both US and Chinese dignitaries. Airmen from the current 74th Fighter Squadron flew four A-10 Thunderbolt II planes in “the missing man formation” over the funeral. Additionally, the Guidong County people erected a large monument on the spot of Upchurch’s former grave in China so they could continue to honor the American Hero. Dirt from both burial sites were placed in a covered jar and given to the Carthage Historical Museum.
No longer Missing in Action, just as his tombstone reads, the American Hero, the Southern Hero, 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch is now Home at Last.

(AP Photo/The News and Observer, Ted Richardson)


Monday, April 15, 2013


Certainly no one would describe me as any kind of shoe aficionado – certainly not in the traditional female style. Recently, someone commented about the flip-flops I was wearing in 60 degree weather. I immediately remarked that I would commonly wear flops in 20-30 degree weather back in my days in Portland, OR. I am certainly no fan of cold weather, but I simply don’t prefer to confine my feet in cramped up “fashionable” – or even what would be considered “standard” shoes.

While I did attempt to conform to some socially acceptable standards of footwear for Southern Ladies, by high school I was already wearing tennis shoes when some custom dictated I wear a dress (which I still opposed, but that is an entirely different story). I guess my footwear evolved over the years… I first refused the pointy confined flats and heels, then even the box shaped dress shoes. I pretty much just wore tennis shoes – if I wore shoes at all. In college, I was known to have shoes in various places (my dorm room, the gym, my car) – just not on my feet. Instead, I ran around barefoot in between those places. I also took to jogging barefoot – even in the winter. My flip-flop love really started then. Many of my friends were athletes and wore those old school Adidas flops. I loved them.

Once I got to medical school, I again tried to conform somewhat to more professional looking shoes, but I quickly reverted back to something more comfortable: clogs. At that time a decent portion of the non-physician staff were already wearing them, but it was unheard of for those higher-than-thou traditional physicians. I didn’t care. Additionally, for several years from medical school through most of my residency across the country, the clogs I chose were either bright yellow or bright orange. In one hospital I spent a year being described as “the resident with the duck shoes.” I’m not much of a morning person, so those bright colors perked me up when I had to get up at 4 AM to go to the hospital to start a shift that may last 36+ hours. (Obviously, this was before the “80 hour work week” mandate.)
By the time I started my first “paying” job – that is, one that paid more than my medical school debt and rent – I switched to soccer kicks. Mostly, I preferred Pumas and Adidas, but I had quite a variety. Perhaps it was because I had also decided to ditch my traditional white doctor’s coat – which I found pompous AND confining (plus… blood and betadine and everything else shows up like a neon sign on those whites). Instead I wore track jackets over my scrubs. I had an impressive array of those as well, and they could at least hide the stains even if all manner of stain-busters failed to remove them completely.

The hospital staff I worked with from the security guards to physicians to radiology techs to the ultimate of importance, the nurses, all accepted this unique uniform after only a few days to weeks of working with me. On the other hand, the appendicitis or diverticulitis patient I had just met in the Emergency Department who I was about to rush to the Operating Room where I would be cutting them open… they took a li’l more convincing. It took a few minutes of getting to know me before they would trust the doctor that looked more like an 18 year old soccer player that was rushing between traumas, the ICU, and the OR while constantly assuring them it would be ok. (Obviously, my trauma patients and critical care patients didn’t need convincing as they were either drunk, drugged or comatose.) After all the surgeries and care given, the patients and their families didn’t care what I wore.

So, despite it all, my unusual shoe choices became irrelevant amongst friends, colleagues, patients and family as they all came to accept it as … well… as is.
And that’s my shoe story.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Peaceful South

I have long searched for peace. I have searched in books, in nature, in church, in meditation, in sleep, in seeking advice from various mentors and pastors and gurus and friends and family and anybody else that would offer a suggestion. So I wondered when in my life have I actually found some peace? My earliest peaceful memory is high up in a pecan tree… I grew up on a farm in South Georgia. We were mainly beef farmers, but we also grew corn and soybeans – and depending on the year and which relative’s farm, sometimes cotton, tobacco, wheat, hay, pigs, chickens, goats…pretty much whatever fancied whichever farmer that year, and almost my entire family – both sides – were involved in farming somehow. Always, though, we had pecan groves. They weren’t as lucrative as the beef cattle, but those same cattle could pasture in between the trees, so it was a two-for-one. When the pecans didn’t sell well, it wasn’t the end of the world because the cattle were well taken care of and sure to bring in some income. When the pecan prices were up, that was a blessed bonus we all appreciated. For a brief time, we even boxed and shipped our own pecans from the small laundry room of our home. I can still remember all those labels – back when a label-maker was a novelty and computers hadn’t yet come to rule the world.
Anyway, I must have been 10 years old or so, and it was spring. Springtime in the South is one of God’s most gorgeous gifts – whether it’s magnolia blooms, dogwoods or cherry blossoms – or the continual smell of sweet Georgia clay and freshly cut grass. It was a great time to be outside. The mosquitoes hadn’t arrived and there was nothing to watch since football was over, baseball was just starting, and none of us cared about the NBA. I once heard someone say that children these days have too many toys, too many distractions, too many electronics, and that there was only one thing he had to play with growing up: OUTSIDE. That’s where we played growing up – OUTSIDE. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly had plenty to play with and were blessed with toys and bikes; a trampoline and our Granddaddy’s pool. Nonetheless, most of our time was definitely spent outside.
One late Spring day – it must’ve been almost summer – I had decided to climb the pecan tree in the front yard to get into the breeze and under the shelter of the leaves. I was up in that tree for hours. Sometimes my siblings would look for me, but, you know, the easy place to hide is Up. Most folks don’t look up – certainly not when searching for something or someone. Everyone looks down, in and under…more on that later…
Anyway…I had a two-by-four with me. We weren’t allowed to build tree houses because it might damage the pecan trees and decrease production. So…I would take short two-by-fours up the tree with me and rig them in the crooks of the limbs making a “gentle” platform, a temporary tree fort, if you will – at least for the time I was up there. With two-by-four in hand, I shinnied up that tree (no small feat for a pecan tree without low limbs or easy places to grasp – it really was half jump, half shinny), and found a good crook between two sturdy branches. Then, I set up my two-by-four so that I could sit down comfortably but also lean back against one of the limbs. And that’s it. I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t play games or try and lure my unsuspecting siblings into some sort of ambush. I just sat there. Sometimes I watched the trucks on the highway; sometimes I watched the tractors in the field across the road. I listened to animal noises that I would have normally tuned out. I felt the breeze as it blew through the trees and thus on and around me – but I actually noticed it this time.
Mostly, I sat in awe of the change in perspective. Whether lying flat on your back or rising high in the sky, everything changes. The new angles with which I viewed my own childhood home, my brother, my sister, our farm… I was mesmerized. And in that moment, all was well. I was ok. I was safe. I had a new view, a new gratitude, a new perspective.
And I was alone.
I don’t know why that seemed peaceful to me, but it did. I relished that separation from the chaos, the hurry.
Don’t get me wrong – I was always an active kid – running and swimming and playing and competing. And yet, this ability, this privilege to just sit – to be still – was such a peaceful blessing. I longed for it. I long for it still. I think I have been looking for that two-by-four and tree all the years of my adult life. There is a right-ness to separating from the noise of this world and just being. It wasn’t meditation – at least not in the conventional sense. Really, it was just being. I heard all the sounds of nature, saw the activity on the highway, and watched the work in the field. I knew where my brother and sister were playing, and I knew when Mama poked her head outside to confirm we were all still within our proper radius. So it wasn’t a deep breathing, tune out the world kind of peace. It was a be-still, be-quiet, and be-fully-in-this-place moment.
That’s hard to find today, but I still search for it all the time…

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Non-Football Sports

I was recently asked the question, “Do I care about other sports?” This person was referring to anything other than football – which he knows I care about dearly. Here’s my answer.
…well, I grew up with the knowledge that basketball and baseball were solely there to keep you in shape for the next football season. In my adult life, I have grown to love college basketball – both men’s and women’s – which have heart and passion unknown to the NBA although in the last coupla years the NBA’s passion has improved, and I’ve gotten slightly more interested in it. I know the parity that has crept into the college basketball game has upset some critics. However, I would say it makes it more interesting. Why? Because there’s a play-off at the end, and we can pronounce a winner. It’s not the stupid BCS – we can actually watch these teams that are jockeying for the top rankings go at each other one-on-one and see which one REALLY is better. I reckon in that regard, college basketball has it better than football.
Then we get to baseball (because, as a Southern Lady, I am not even going to deign to comment on hockey – of which I know nothing and barely even acknowledge its existence) which we all grew up thinking was similar to basketball – you played it or watched it because football hadn’t started yet. Having said that, I do have a fondness for baseball. It’s laid back, slow paced play… the way you can watch it and still multitask a million other things while it’s going on – it’s different from ALL the other sports if only in that one manner. Baseball is so slow that you never miss anything. If anything truly great goes on – more than any other sport – they have plenty of time (and don’t even need slow-mo) to re-show the viewers whatever exciting thing happened. Turn those games on and I guarantee you won’t miss anything...wash your car; bake a cake; mow the lawn; write a will NOT miss anything. I can’t say that about any sport other than golf.
That brings me to the next two sports: tennis and golf. Let’s get golf out of the way first. It’s much more interesting to play than to watch. The exception to that rule is, of course, if John Daly or Tiger Woods are playing. Each can bring unique intrigue – Kardashian-style – to golfing events. Nonetheless, golf isn’t even as much of a sport as it is a hobby – like knitting and pottery making. I accept that it takes skill, patience, talent and practice to perfect it… It’s just not necessarily as athletic as other events classified as “sports.” Even NASCAR drivers have a better claim as a sport than golf. As for tennis, many will disdain the sport as outdated and uninteresting. I, however, still remember getting up extra early in July to watch the Wimbledon matches and staying up extra late to see Steffi Graff whoop up on folks in the Australian Open. I concur that it has lost some of its marketability in the last few years, and I’m not sure how that happened. It’s an excellent sport and one of the few that is one-on-one throughout its entirety. It also is one of the more demanding sports on the body. No, nobody is suffering concussions to the rate of football, but watch how their lower bodies take the brunt of the hard surface courts and pound on their hips, knees, ankles… It’s tasking. It’s athletic. It’s demanding. I personally look forward to its resurgence.
While on the topic of demanding, we’d next have to look at track and field – as well as the X Games - but first the classic. Track and field is definitely demanding. It’s just that it’s not so exciting to watch. I mean, if you’re watching the final hundred yard dash in the Olympics – maybe. If you’re talking about marathons, all anybody cares about (if they care at all) is who crosses that finish line first. Not very many people care to watch folks run for one or two or three hours…. It’s a little boring. Even those of us who have run them know we mostly did so to say we DID it. Most marathoners aren’t out to win. That’s why we all talk about our personal best times rather than how many races we’ve run…
Next is the X Games. Those are phenomenal, but like gymnastics and diving, they have an Olympics type aura to them so that we don’t look so much to who wins the half pipe this year…we are waiting to see who wins the Gold Medal in the next Olympics in the Half Pipe. It’s just not followed like the “regular” sports. If I have the opportunity to watch the X Games, I always enjoy it, but I don’t go out of my way to make sure I’m watching. Give me two pitiful college football teams in a make-shift bowl game, and I’m rearranging my schedule to see it….THAT is the difference. AND, I think that needs to change…marketing and television exposure just hasn’t caught up to the X Games. They’re working on it, but I would love to see more, more, more.
Did I miss anything? Cycling is ridiculous – particularly in light of what we now know about it and like marathons, is just tedious to watch. I get the draw of car races but am just not personally drawn to it. ….oh – the crossfit competitions! I really enjoy watching them. They give me great new ideas for stuff to add to my workout while also making me feel weak and inferior – but they are inspiring! Again, though, they are more about individual accomplishment than really competing against someone – coming up with strategies and game plans, etc. It’s just different, and like the X Games not as broadly marketed – yet!
So…. I reckon the answer to the question is what I’ve often told people about the state of Georgia…. There are 3 things that matter most here: God, Football and Coca~Cola.
So, all non-football sports are just time-fillers, AND I’m enough of a sports junkie to keep up with all of them anyway.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

God, Football and Coca~Cola

When foreigners (people from the northeast or west coast, that is) ask me about the South, I try to dispel some of the myths and give them a better picture of the Deep South – which is where I have spent the majority of my life. Now, sometimes these conversations are difficult to start because these friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers may require a translator. That is, my beautiful Southern drawl occasionally takes a while to grow accustomed to, and even after knowing me for years, once in a while a friend will ask me to repeat a word… or I may actually have to spell it out loud for them to finally understand. I don’t mind. I tell ‘em it’s good practice – I’m a firm believer that God speaks Southern, so they may wanna perfect it now.
What do I tell these folks about the South? Well, I generally start with some of our wonderful traditions such as never letting a Lady change her own flat tire. I have never been broken down on the side of the road without a kind stranger stopping to help me with whatever was wrong – flat tire, car trouble, or traffic crash.
There’s another great tradition that happens after tragedy… Let me tell you, if somebody dies in your house, you will have casseroles, hams and cakes to last you a year – and I am NOT exaggerating. My Daddy died when I was young, and I distinctly remember my siblings and I cheering when Mama told us that that night’s supper was the last of the ham and casseroles from the freezer.
Additionally, we say “yes ma’am” and “no sir” – not to insult anyone’s age – but as a sign of respect. In the Deep South the men will still insist on opening doors for the Ladies, and it does NOT threaten my independence or strength or honor one single bit.
Particularly in the smaller towns, if one child gets sick, the entire town is praying for the whole family and raising money at school, businesses and church to help them with any of their needs. Southerners do NOT sit in a hospital room alone for any reason – nor is the waiting room devoid of folks offering love, support and, of course, food.
Generally, dogs don’t have leashes, and they ride in the open truck bed rather than inside the vehicle – unless there is no truck bed. Southern dogs also tend to shun their dog food as they are more accustomed to scraps after the people have eaten.
Seasons are measured by what the farmers are planting – wheat and oats before Thanksgiving; corn in late winter/early spring; soybeans and peanuts later in the spring or even early summer; then cotton as sometime between Easter and summer – and harvesting – wheat/oats at the tail end of spring; corn in the hottest part of summer (late July and August); peanuts in September; soybeans in October; cotton ‘round Halloween.
Southerners eat food grown in the ground within 17 miles of their own houses and usually from their back yard. The meals of the day are breakfast, dinner and supper…try and meet one of us for dinner and we’ll show up at noon.
The most common thing you’ll hear if a friend is driving you through the South is, “there’s another church; there’s another church; there’s a church with a mini graveyard…” Mind you, most of the churches are tiny li’l things with congregations of less than 50 people – although you will find the larger First Baptist Church, United Methodist Church and maybe a First Presbyterian Church. In those small towns, you will definitely NOT see a Catholic Church or Synagogue or anything other than “the big three.” (Ok, you may find some Episcopalian Churches…but that’s it.)
If you are way deep in the South, you will learn that you should NOT drive with hands at 10 and 2. No, Sir, you drive with one hand placed at noon (12 on the steering wheel). You do this so that you can lift your top four fingers in a casual wave at every other vehicle that passes you by – whether you know them or not. Also, the use of blinkers is optional.
In the Deep South, you grow up living within a county or two of your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – most of the time, every single one of them. The beauty of this is you always have a couch and a hand made quilt at some relative’s home to comfort you when you have the flu and your own parents are at work. We really do still quilt, knit and crochet.
To this day, I have not found anything that we can’t figure out how to fry. And yes, I’m putting that in the “good” column.
Hard work is still honored in the South and everyone knows who works hard and who doesn’t.
And I’ll stop here with: the Southland has the most beautiful spring in all the world, and a sweet Southern drawl is the most soothing sound in all the world.

Now, there are some not-so-nice parts to the South. We do have a touch of the humidity that northerners sometimes find uncomfortable. Our li’l pesky bug – the gnat – can turn out in swarms from time to time, as can the mosquitoes. We don’t like them either. While it’s really nice that you’ll get help when your car breaks down and people will feed you when you’re sick or someone dies…it also means that everybody knows everything about everybody.
There are few secrets in the Deep South. Be careful, though, we don’t talk about the bad stuff out loud – well, not around the folks in question. When you see someone you have a disagreement with, you smile, say hello, ask about their family and move on as if it were the most pleasant thing in the world. Then you talk about them behind their back as soon as they are out of earshot. We could probably do without that tradition.
“Bless your heart” can be translated as everything from “oh, that’s so sad” to “uhm-hmm…you brought this on yourself” to “this one’s ‘special’” followed by a pat-pat-pat on the shoulder. We also still have troubles with racism and subtle segregation – but that is improving, thankfully.
Also, some people would count it against the Deep South small towns that perhaps we aren’t so exciting with few restaurants, bars and what some would consider “cultural” institutions, but I personally find the slower pace and reduced amount of strip malls and discount stores to be refreshing….and we are a cultural institution all unto itself!

When I want to be brief, though, I stick to the big three… What matters in the Deep South and particularly Georgia where Coca~Cola lives, is:
And Coca~Cola
--in that order .

Footnote:  by football, we mean college football.