Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.
Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

A trip to Georgia’s oldest city to feel new again

I’ve kicked around Georgia now for more than 21 years, almost half my life. In all that time, I had only been to Savannah twice.

The third time was definitely a charm last weekend as Carla and I were able to parlay a work event Friday night into an excuse to leave the boys with Carla’s parents and have a weekend away.

It was just what the doctor ordered for us in the early stages of a rat-race school year overly filled with scouts, band, work and other volunteer responsibilities that prevent such basic relationship necessities as uninterrupted conversations and rest.

You can't beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It's across the river from downtown, but worth the extra distance.
You can’t beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It’s across the river from downtown, but worth the extra driving distance.

We stayed at the Westin Savannah Harbor overlooking the Savannah River, and were treated to a great, 11th floor view of the channel and its bustling activity: freighters laden with containers, tugboats trailing or pulling the container ships, ferries running tourists back and forth to River Street and even the occasional personal watercraft piloted by those who don’t think the last weekend in September is too late in the year to be in the water.

We purposefully did not fill our schedule, although we had contemplated everything from a historic trolley tour to a ghost tour.  Instead, we just went with our impulses. Sleeping late, brunch, enjoying a breezy walk down River Street and ultimately up into the historic downtown. Inadvertently accomplishing a major Christmas shopping milestone and sampling the goods at Byrd’s Cookie Company was as ambitious as our day got.

We left plenty of time for napping poolside and a stack of Southern Livings and Garden & Guns.

The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is one the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.
The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is on the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.

As much as we enjoyed each other’s company, the highlight of the trip was dinner Saturday night at The Olde Pink House, a Savannah landmark and memorable culinary and cultural experience. Our good friends from Macon, Dusty and Tonya, have survived several vacation outings with us, including a cruise, and are the kind of good friends every couple should have.

They invite you to be yourself in a sincere way, laugh at your jokes, empathize with your child rearing challenges because of their own three kids, and know enough of the same people to gossip but have enough new in their lives to keep conversation interesting. And since they moved to Savannah two years ago, they have an intimate knowledge of the city they now call home.

Interestingly enough, though we spent the better part of six hours together, our conversation tended to break into gender-specific cliques. They talked home decorating while we talked football and Georgia Tech, Dusty’s alma mater and my employer.

Not one to have to be the life of the party, Dusty gave us an unexpected treat when The Olde Pink House’s roving improvisational singer came by the table. His premeditated, and perhaps rehearsed, harmonizing with the vocalist on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” including the whistling part, gave our friendship yet another lifelong memory and the room full of diners something to giggle and whisper about. What can I say, that’s just Dusty.

The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It's one of many beautiful historic landmarks in the city filled with parks and squares.
The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It’s one of many beautiful historic buildings in a city filled with parks and squares.

Here’s what I learned from the weekend: you appreciate a time out from your regular routine more when it’s infrequent. You need time away from your children in order to appreciate them more. You should never fail to appreciate good friends because you never know when circumstances may separate you. And, finally, you can appreciate your spouse more if you have time to actually talk to him or her.

Anyone within a few hundred miles should plan a trip to the oldest city in Georgia – just don’t do it during Spring Break. That’s when we’re planning a return. This time we’ll bring the boys along and have a different kind of memorable weekend that will help the entire family bond.

What do you like or dislike about Savannah? Have you ever been? What are must-dos and must-eats in this historic city? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

Southern Oscars

Sunday night is Hollywood’s annual tribute to narcissism, hedonism and voyeurism known as the Academy Awards.

Oscar statuette
Southern trophies typically have antlers. This one ain’t from around here.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have only watched the Oscars a couple of times in my whole life, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete broadcast. I have no plans to watch it this year. Depending on what time the Daytona 500 finishes, you may or may not switch over and catch a little of it.

But because three of the nine films nominated for best picture are either set in the South or have Southern themes, I began contemplating Southern movies.

What makes a movie “Southern?” Is it as simple as a being set in the South or does it revolve around Southern characters regardless of geographic location? Are there a set of themes that make a film Southern? What is the difference between Southern movies and New South movies? What milestone movie marked the change? Why are Southern accents always so bad in movies?

So while the Oscars have little to interest me, these questions intrigue me. Let’s take them in order.

Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn't win an Oscar.
Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn’t win an Oscar.

First, what makes a movie Southern? I don’t think it is a function of geography or character or theme. I believe it can be any of the three, but those films we most strongly identify as Southern have at least two of three. A movie can be set in the South and not be Southern. Just look at all of the movies being filmed in Georgia these days thanks to the gracious tax breaks and active recruitment of production studios.

A few years ago, Carla and I rented “Life as We Know It” staring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. It was set in Atlanta, but there was nothing particularly Southern about the characters. It did have a strong theme of family woven throughout. I would consider it a Southern movie, but not as much as, say, “The Blind Side,” which had all three, complete with bad Southern accents.

Next, what constitutes a Southern theme? Here, I think you have to look to Southern literature. Some universally-agreed upon Southern literary themes include, but aren’t limited to, the aforementioned family, history, tradition, community, justice, faith, race, agriculture and the land, social class and hardship.

If you ain't first, you're last. This one wasn't exactly Academy material.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This one wasn’t exactly Academy material either.

There are plenty of films that have these themes that aren’t Southern in any way, but it’s hard to find the reverse – a Southern movie that doesn’t employ these themes. Even something as ridiculous as, say, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” has multiple themes of family, faith, class and hardship, not to mention the whole dialect thing.

That brings us to the question of whether Southern movies are any different in the New South. I think so. Historical epics aside, I think New South films portray race in very different ways. Gone are the days when archetypes veer into stereotypes. One example is the 2012 remake of “Steel Magnolias” with an all African-American cast.

New South movies take traditional Southern themes and either approach them in an unorthodox format or reverse the perspective and look at a narrative from other angles.

Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn't believe she had never seen it.
Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn’t believe she had never seen it.

For me, this began with 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” By moving back and forth between the past and present and making the societal underdogs triumphant along the way, what may have been a maudlin and superficial Southern film brings a thoughtful edge that ultimately endorses radically different worldviews from the Old South.

As for the bad Southern accents? Well, I’m afraid it’s just part of the territory. There is no overarching Southern dialect, and too many movies seem to ignore the subtle differences within the South. Those of us with well-trained ears will wince when a character set in a movie in Virginia breaks out in an Alabama drawl. Occasionally, the actors themselves hail from Southern locales and grew up immersed in the dialect bringing an authentic sound. Think Conyers, Ga.,-native Holly Hunter in just about anything she’s done.

Cannibalism is just one of the surprise "isms" in this New South movie.
Cannibalism is just one of the surprise “isms” in this New South movie.

So whether or not Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild or Django Unchained win best picture, it has been a high-profile year for Southern films. Given the rise of the New South in all forms of media, I don’t think it will be the last.

What’s your favorite Southern movie? Check out this list on Wikipedia for help, and a leave a comment with your vote. We’ll call it “The Southern Oscars.”

An encounter with the irascible Dr. Sams

Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.
Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.

Dr. Ferrol Sams died this week at the age of 90. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.

He might have said something to the effect of “You ain’t got a lick-a-sense if you’ve never read my books.”

The author of “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” is one of Georgia’s best-known and best-loved writers. His passing this week reminded me of my discovery of his work and my dealings with the mischievous and sometimes profane Southern literary luminary.

It was January of 1993, six months into my stint as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. I was given the assignment of researching and revealing Macon’s “secret places” – those rumored and legendary haunts around town that many had heard of but few had ever seen. It was a great story that took several weeks of interviewing and reading to pull together. It was in the reporting for this story that I first learned of Ferrol Sams and his work.

One of the secret places I was including in the piece was a room at the base of the spire of Mercer University’s administration building where Porter Osborne Jr., Sams’ main character from the “The Whisper of the River,” lost his virginity. Incoming Mercer freshmen are required to read “The Whisper of the River,” but since I had not matriculated at that fine institution at the time of my story assignment, I hadn’t even heard of Ferrol Sams.

I devoured the book – a thinly veiled autobiographical novel of Sams’ time at Mercer. In the book, Osborne, a country boy, goes off to Willingham College in the fictional version of Macon, and mad-cap and bawdy adventures ensued, including, of course, the chapter when Osborne has his fledgling sexual encounters in the secret room in the bell tower.

It was just such chapters that led my friend and fellow church member, the late Dr. William Shirley, to tell me one day after church “Lance, that’s a dirty book.” Dr. Shirley was a classmate of Dr. Sams at Mercer, and although I went back and re-read “The Whisper of the River” looking for him, I couldn’t figure out which character represented Dr. Shirley.

At Mercer University's 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.
At Mercer University’s 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.

It was somewhat awkward the day I went with Telegraph photographer Maryann Bates to Mercer to do interviews about the room. A young, rather attractive woman from the University Relations Office escorted us up to the room where she told us all about the space and how it achieved notoriety.

I remember blushing and stuttering the question “So, is this the room where… you know… IT happened?”

Maryann couldn’t suppress a laugh at my poor attempt at euphemism.

When the story appeared, I received a letter from retired – and now deceased – Macon attorney Hendley Napier. Mr. Napier insisted my story had incorrectly identified the location of the secret room as the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s chapter room, and he was most offended.

My editor, James Palmer, and I went back and forth over how best to respond to Mr. Napier. It was this experience that taught me there is no one more tenacious than a retired attorney with time on his hands. James determined that Mr. Napier reached his conclusion about my story erroneously. I had not said the KA chapter room was the secret room, but some imprecise language, specifically the antecedent of the impersonal pronoun “it,” was the source of the confusion. We did not run a correction or even a clarification.

This didn’t sit well with Mr. Napier who proceeded to carry out a one-man campaign against me and The Telegraph until justice was done and the KA chapter room exonerated. In one of the letters, Mr. Napier threatened to contact Dr. Sams himself to set the record straight.

About a month later, as I struggled with writing original prose about the 1993 Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, the phone at my desk rang. (The following is a loose transcript based on my memory, not the actual notes.)

“Macon Telegraph, this is Lance Wallace,” I recited.

“Is this Lance Wallace?” came the agitated response.

“Uh, yes… yes, it is. How may I help you?”

“You the one who did that story about the secret room at Mercer?”

“Yes… yes sir, I’m the one.”

“Well, I don’t know what you did, but you sure got Hendley Napier all stirred up.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry.”

“This is Dr. Sams up in Fayette County. It seems you have written something about my book and have Hendley Napier all out of sorts. He asked me to give you a call to clear this up. You got a pen?”

“Uh… yes, yes sir, right here.”

The cover of the copy of "Whisper of the River" I read back in 1993.
The cover of the copy of “Whisper of the River” I read back in 1993.

“Good. You take this down: The Kappa Alpha Chapter Room at Mercer University is a hallowed and sacred place. Many significant rites and solemn vows were made in that room where the bonds of brotherhood were firmly established with the utmost fervor and conviction. No male human could possibly attain an erection much less consummate the act of sexual intercourse in so grave and somber an environment. Furthermore, any rumor contradicting the widely-known and indisputable fact that Hendley Napier graduated Mercer University anything other than a virgin is an egregious and bald-faced lie.”

“Uh… Dr. Sams… uh… I can’t…”

“Son, you ain’t got no hair on your ass if you don’t put that in the newspaper.”

“Well… I don’t  think…”

“If that Hendley Napier calls you again, please tell him I called. Have a good day.”

Stunned, I slowly returned the handset to the base and stared down at the scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. When I relayed the conversation to my editor, James laughed so hard he nearly had tears. Shaking his head he said to me, “Yep, that sounds like Ferrol Sams. You be sure to keep those notes.”

Well, I’m sure I have those notes somewhere in my basement, but the memory is so vivid they are unnecessary.

I’m sorry to learn of his passing, but at 90, it can be said that Ferrol Sams lived a full life. I’m glad he shared it with us through his books.

Have you read any of Ferrol Sams’ work? If so, which is your favorite? Leave a comment with your assessment of his writing. You don’t have any hair… well, you get the idea… if you don’t leave a comment!

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.

Wheels

As I write today’s entry, a life hangs in the balance.

This is not our car, but it's the same model. I don't think I ever parked it on the beach.
This is not our car, but it’s the same model. I don’t think I ever parked it on the beach.

Our 11-year-old Volvo V70 station wagon sits in the parking lot of a transmission repair shop awaiting its fate.

Those of you who are regular readers of New South Essays will remember that number 19 on my 30 days of Thanksgiving list was “functioning vehicles.” Apparently I didn’t knock on enough wood to stave off a jinx, but the Volvo has been tough. We’ve had near-death experiences before.

Almost five years ago, what was then Carla’s car received the terminal diagnosis of imminent transmission failure. The only treatment option, the dealer told us, was total replacement at a price tag exceeding $5,000.

That was nearly 100,000 miles ago. We elected not to pursue the replacement, and instead, Carla got a minivan and I started driving the grocery getter to work. Yes, we had to tolerate a certain level of “rough shifting,” but it’s amazing how much rough shifting you can live with for $5,000.

All has been well until I changed jobs at the end of August and started commuting to Midtown Atlanta. After a couple of months and several instances of the car just shutting off on me, Carla and I elected to switch vehicles. While I traded up in the reliability department, I made a lateral move in the coolness department.

For several months our boys, particularly our eldest, teased me that I was driving “an old lady car” when behind the wheel of our station wagon. When I started driving the Honda Odyssey, he said I was now driving a “Mommy Mobile.”

I would love nothing more than to have the Volvo put out of service and be able to buy a brand spanking new pick-up truck. But financial realities being what they are, a truck is not in my immediate future. We really need to be able to either A.) keep driving the Volvo or B.) trade it in for some value toward another vehicle. A truck would be about the least practical purchase for my daily commute.

It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett's car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.
It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett’s car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.

All this has me contemplating vehicles in the New South. If a pickup truck is a Southern icon (remember the opening ceremonies of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta with the synchronized pickup routine?), has it been replaced? What is the iconic vehicle of the New South? Is it Mercedes Benz, manufactured in Vance, Ala.? Is it a BMW, made in Spartanburg, S.C.?

Or could it be the Kia or Hyundai models, manufactured in Georgia? Porsche is about to build a new headquarters in Atlanta at the site of the old Ford plant near the airport. Could a Porsche be the signature vehicle of the New South?

I don’t really know. It may be a minivan, for all I know. Every time we leave church or a scout meeting, the parking lot looks like a used car lot specializing in the Honda Odyssey.

This week’s post is interactive. Your vote counts, so participate and encourage others to answer today’s poll question: What is the quintessential vehicle of the New South? If we can answer this question definitively today, we could give car dealers something new to advertise during the holiday glut of red bow-topped cars.

Make your nomination by leaving a comment below. Results will be published with next week’s essay.

Matrimony in the great outdoors

I’m not really a fan of weddings.

I guess I enjoyed my own wedding, but overall, they’re just not that appealing to me. They are too often a big production that has little to do with making a sacred vow before God, family and friends. The spectacle and expense are too much for me to take seriously.

Alex and Natalie get married on a dock
The view from the congregation at the King-Vinson wedding posted to Facebook by one of the couple’s friends.

That said, I have been to a number of very nice weddings and have enjoyed being a part of a number of ceremonies in which friends or family have done their best to put the emphasis on what’s important. This past week, Carla and I attended one such wedding that turned out to be the perfect combination of scenic venue, enjoyable conversation, delicious food and a meaningful ceremony.

I guess it’s just natural when you’re married that when you attend a wedding you end up comparing it to your own. Even though we married in May, we couldn’t help but think about the similarities and key differences in this union of our friends, Alex and Natalie, and our own wedding more than 15 years ago. We were good, Southern traditionalists and attempted a simple, tasteful and aesthetically-pleasing outdoor wedding. A heavy rain sent us indoors, completely changing the venue and vibe of our wedding, and Carla has harbored regret ever since.

She even gets a little jealous, I think, when couples get to have their nuptials outside, which was the case last weekend for Alex and Natalie. Because we have been in dialogue with them at church during their wedding planning for the past few months, we were eager to see their vision come to life.

Unlike our wedding, the weather cooperated magnificently. You could not have custom- created a better Georgia October day. It was clear with a slight breeze and warm without a trace of humidity. The lakeside setting with trees turning autumnal red, orange and yellow provided scenic vistas from nearly every vantage point of the several hundred attendees. The wedding party assembled on a flower petal-strewn dock, tastefully and simply adorned with two huge urns of fall flowers.

The music was a mix of violin and keyboard and included the classic as well as the bride and groom’s special selections.

Alex chomps a piece of the grooms cake as Natalie looks on.
Don’t they look like they’re having fun? The chocolate-peanut butter groom’s cake was a hit.

I care very deeply about Alex and Natalie and was glad to see them taking such efforts to ensure the event was about what weddings are supposed to be about, and when they tied a fisherman’s knot instead of lighting a unity candle, I couldn’t help but think how the metaphor was appropriate on so many levels. All that was missing was a fish jumping out of the water at the moment they set their completed knot down into a ceramic basin.

As the ceremony ended and guests made their way to the lit tent by the lake, the photographer got busy taking the obligatory after-the-ceremony photos. Unlike many weddings we’ve attended where the guests are left to socialize in hunger for what seems like hours, Alex and Natalie wisely invited their guests to help themselves to the buffet during the photography session. Having left our children with Carla’s parents, we were appreciative of the rare treat of uninterrupted adult conversation. The time at the table was a special gift for us as we and our friends reflected on our own wedding experiences, laughed at our naivete and reconnected with the reasons we had all chosen our mates. And it was a powerful reminder to me that Carla is a lot of fun to be around.

I’m glad the weather cooperated. I’m glad I was invited. I’m glad Brian, Amy and Rebecca sat at our table and provided easy and enjoyable conversation. I’m glad Alex and Natalie seemed to get what a wedding is supposed to be about. And for this wedding Grinch, I’m glad I had one to chalk up on the good side of the ledger.

Maybe my attitude will change about weddings. There are precious few years left before I may have to be the father of the groom myself. I might as well get ready for it.

Have you been to a particularly enjoyable or meaningful wedding recently? How did you make your own wedding a unique expression of your style and your relationship? Do you hate weddings? Leave a comment below and share the love.

Get thee to a pumpkin patch

As temperatures down South dip into the 40s and 50s, tasteful seasonal decorating requires at least one nice gourd on the front porch.

Carlton offers his little pumpkin
Carlton found the perfect sized pumpkin for him at Berry Patch Farms.

Some of you have been so eager for fall temperatures that you ran out and bought a pumpkin when they first arrived in stores or when the pumpkin patches first opened in late August or early September. Sadly, those early pumpkins are now rotten piles of mildew and orange goo or have long since been discarded.

When the air gets that hint of cool crispness, the first line of a poem by James Whitcomb Riley that I memorized in elementary school invades my mind: “When the frost is on the pumpkin…”

We haven’t had a frost yet, here in Atlanta, but now is the right time to get a pumpkin. If you still haven’t made your pumpkin purchase for this fall, here are few pointers to keep in mind:

1.) Pumpkin patches are fun. In my mind, the more authentic the pumpkin patch, the better, but we’ve seen everything from a random assortment of pumpkins laying out in a field to a church selling pumpkins from their front yard to the grocery store to Stone Mountain’s annual Pumpkin Fest where pumpkins are tucked in around the granite boulders. Pumpkin patches are usually accessorized by hayrides, corn mazes and an assortment of fall foods. To make things easier for you, I’ve found a website listing pumpkin patches throughout the Peach State.

Harris with a big pumpkin
Harris likes his pumpkins a little bit bigger.

2.) Purchase pumpkins where you buy your fruits and vegetables. At most of the pumpkin patches I’ve visited, you spend all your money doing the ancillary activities so that by the time you’re ready to pick out your pumpkin, you can’t really afford a nice gourd. Here’s a hint: you can buy the same size or larger at the grocery store for a fraction of the price of a pumpkin patch pumpkin. I apologize to all the pumpkin patch fundraisers out there, but I am duty bound to report this consumer fact to all of my loyal readers… well, both of my loyal readers.

3.) Pick a pumpkin that wasn’t picked in July. The firmer the pumpkin, the fresher the pumpkin. If it gives when you press on it, then it’s ready for the compost heap, not for carving. And if carving isn’t really what you had in mind, there are lots of varieties of guords that may meet your needs better. You can learn more at this site.

4.) Roast the seeds. In elementary school, I had a teacher who handed out roasted pumpkin seeds as rewards. Perhaps I have too much of a psychological investment in pumpkin as a result, but roasted pumpkin seeds are at least as good as sunflower seeds without all the spitting of hulls. We have trouble getting the process right and typically burn ours, but according the pumpkin recipe page, 225 degrees for an hour should do the trick.

Wallace family
Doesn’t the fall just bring out our family’s togetherness?

5.) Start a family tradition. You don’t have to sit in a pumpkin patch at midnight on Halloween to have a great time with gourds in the fall. Every element of the pumpkin process from the selection to the carving makes for great photos and even better memories.

Growing up, my family never really bothered with pumpkins, but Carla and I have purchased at least one pumpkin every year since we had kids. Some years were so busy that we didn’t bother to carve them, but having pumpkins is one of the highlights of our family’s fall activities.

Better get your pumpkin today. The pickins are getting pretty slim at the farms and patches. Pretty soon, all that will be left are the rotting, decaying or mishapen pumpkins, and no one wants a misfit pumpkin on their front porch.

Where do you get your  pumpkins? How many do you buy each year? Do you roast the seeds or try to use the entrails for pumpkin pie? Don’t hold back! Share all your pumpkin secrets by leaving a comment below.

County fare

Last Friday night we loaded up the minivan and headed to Lawrenceville for the Gwinnett County Fair. We hadn’t been in several years, and we were overdue for a family outing. This one fit the bill nicely.

Carlton looking down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel.
Carlton looks down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel. Look at ALL the people eating bad food!

I prefer my fairs a little later in the fall — call it a habit formed by 10 years of living in Middle Georgia where the Georgia National Fair in Perry and the Georgia State Fair in Macon hit in October — but as fairs go, the Gwinnett County Fair has all you need. There are rides, both for the kiddies and the astronaut trainees who can withstand whirling G forces. There are animals, mostly pigs and cows the night we went. There are people to watch. How on earth the freak shows can compete with who you see on the midway is beyond me, what with all the piercings and tattoos these days.

And then, there is the food. If you can cover it in batter and fry it in oil, then it will be served to you at a fair. This year we treated ourselves to corn dogs for the kids and Philly Cheese Steak and Italian Sausage sandwiches for the adults.

I am normally a little more health conscious about what I consume, but fried processed meats and potatoes are what you are supposed to eat at the fair. It’s expected. It’s … it’s … well, it’s just plain American.

What I have noticed in recent years, however, is the addition of fried candy bars and other desserts. OK, I’ll give you a fried fruit pie. That makes sense, in a way, and those have been around for years. But who was the first person to put a stick in a Snickers, coat it in batter and deep fry it?

This year’s Holy Grail for Carla was the fried Reese’s Cups. Anyone who has visited her Pinterest board dedicated to all things chocolate and peanut butter will know she has more than a passing interest in this food combination.

So a couple of hours after our grease-infused supper had settled, we joined the line at a vendor advertising fried Oreos, Twinkies, Reese’s Cups and much, much more.

And I’m happy to report that coating desserts in batter, frying them and adding powdered sugar may kill you, but it doesn’t taste half bad. Yes, I know, it is an assault on your pancreas, but it is a delight to the taste buds.

Harris eats a fried Twinkie
Harris enjoys a few bites of the fried Twinkie on a stick. I may or may not have finished it.

We all shared each other’s selections. Carla, of course, went with the Reese’s Cups while Harris chose the Twinkie. Barron, who had gone off with his buddy, Noah, got a to-go box of the Oreos, one of which is still in the refrigerator, a persistent reminder of last weekend’s gluttony.

You can count the calories and fat grams of such food. You can even qualify the great taste with an array of superlatives. What you can’t measure is the amount of damage these foods do to your self-esteem. As I sat on the bench outside of the jungle-themed fun house, my black T-shirt getting coated with the tell-tale evidence of powdered sugar, I couldn’t help but think what an awful nutrition choice this was. I knew I should be resisting it with every fiber of my being.

But I stay pretty up-tight most of the time. I finished off Harris’ Twinkie, which he discarded a couple of bites in, while watching him and Carlton laugh and play in the fun house. I watched their faces light up as they zoomed down the giant slide. I swear I could see their stomach’s rising into their throats as they dipped and swooped on the tug boat. I enjoyed their joy.

So if I ate some food that may shorten my life by a few days, I think I can live with the trade-off. The fair has a way of helping you re-prioritize and savor what’s truly important.

Of course, you definitely want to stay away from the “Guess Your Weight” guy. That’s a definite buzz kill.

What’s your favorite fair food? What’s your favorite part of the fair? Share your secret culinary indulgences from the midway by leaving a comment below.

Can I have a second helping of home décor?

I’ll eat just about anything you can put on a plate, but I won’t admire just any plate you can put on a wall.

Those plates must be historic. And Southern. And tell a story.

When my wife of 15 years and I were concocting our wedding registry, (OK, let me restate that more accurately: when my wife of 15 years was concocting her wedding registry) there was one item that popped up on the “must have” list I had never heard of.

“Honey, what’s a Georgia plate?”

That’s when I got that look. You married guys know the one. The look that says “Are you really so unrefined as to not know about Georgia plates?”

Louise Irwin
Louise Irwin, creator of the Georgia Plates, would be so proud of our living room wall.

It’s the same look, incidentally, that I received when I asked such questions as “Aren’t window treatments really just curtains?” and “What’s a toile?” and “Why do there need to be so many pillows?”

As it turns out these Georgia plates are so famous that practically everyone who ever attended a Transylvania Club of Sandersville meeting knows all about them.

What? You say you don’t know the story of Louise Irwin and the Transylvania Club of Sandersville? OK, well, maybe I don’t feel so bad.

You see, back in 1932, Mrs. Irwin latched onto the idea of creating a series of Wedgwood plates depicting scenes from Georgia’s history to sell as a fundraiser for the club. Clearly Mrs. Irwin envisioned that 80 years later suburban housewives would be assembling and reassembling them into artistic formations on their living room walls.

Nancy Hart on a pink Georgia Plate
Nancy Hart says to the Tories: “Don’t be bringin’ that Torie stuff into MY log cabin!”

These plates are actually pretty cool. My favorite is the one depicting Nancy Hart holding a bunch of Tories, whoever they are, at gunpoint. Nothing says “Georgia pride” like gun violence against men in wigs in pink Wedgwood.

I think we’ve eaten on these plates exactly one time. It was a special occasion, like Christmas or Easter, when it seemed appropriate to stare at James Edward Oglethorpe under a pile of mashed red potatoes infused with gorgonzola.

There is so much I don’t understand about home decorating, and I’m sure this essay only confirms my lack of sophistication and taste. I don’t know when it became a “thing” to put plates on walls, but ever since our wedding guests happily complied with my wife’s dreams of owning the entire collection, we’ve had Georgia plates on our walls.

Georgia Plates
A very symmetrical and orderly display of Georgia’s history in Wedgwood plate form on my living room wall. Ain’t I sophisticated?

I do think they add something to our home, though, in a weird museum kind of way. In good light and at the right distance, I can actually read them. And if I take one down, I can flip it over on the back and have marvelous dinner party conversation starters: “Did you know that in 1734 Oglethorpe traveled to London to present the Creek Indian chief Tomochichi to the Colony’s Trustees? Yes, well, they were accompanied by John Musgrove and his wife, Mary, who had served as the interpreter for Tomochichi and Oglethorpe. Can you pass the asparagus?”

Hmmm … maybe I’m beginning to understand why we don’t have many dinner party guests.

What I do think these plates say about the New South is that there is still an appreciation of history. In the Old South, there was a devotion to tradition. In the New South, we like old stuff to remind us we have roots, a foundation upon which we can innovate, but we aren’t held captive to it. Touches of the old accentuate the new in our lives reminding us that as much as society changes, we still have a narrative that unites us as Georgians and Southerners.

So, go ahead and put those Georgia plates on the walls. The Sandersville public library will benefit from the proceeds, and before you know it, there will be another day on the calendar appropriate for using them to eat, like Leap Day or Guy Fawkes Day.

What place do plates have in your decorating? Do you use dinnerware in your décor? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, and happy eating/decorating!