Three Alarm Tree

As we sat down at the table to eat, I noticed a big screen showing a video of a large and beautiful Christmas tree sitting all alone in a nice house.

Suddenly, there was a spark.

In less than 30 seconds, the house was engulfed in flames.

Strange way to start supper.

We were at a local restaurant at the invitation of a couple from church.

The good thing about the fire was that it was a controlled burn. Some pyrotechnical researcher needed to know just how fast a real Christmas tree could burn and thus destroy a whole house.

But then came the videos of real Christmas trees, and real houses, and real people.

And the real fires.

At this point, I realized that I should have just said no to the offer of free food.

Because free almost always has strings attached.

Sometimes, smoke.

We were there with several other couples.

The plan: buy our supper and then guilt us into buying a rather expensive home fire alarm system.

Apparently, according to my friend, almost all residential alarm systems don’t wake people during a fire.

They’re just not loud enough.

But his system was loud enough to wake my wife’s cousins – in Russia.

I got the message.

Avoid dead Christmas tree at all costs.

But I didn’t have the small fortune he wanted for the better alarm system.

I thought about an artificial tree. Maybe a nice green fake tree. A nice facsimile of a tree, and (bonus) NONFLAMMABLE.

And 75% off AFTER Christmas! Yes.

But that’d be too sensible. What I heard from our girls was “Daddy, we want a real tree.”

OK, fine.

So I was off to Lowes.


Found a tree. Douglas fir, about 8 feet tall. Sort-of greenish.

I wrestled him into the tree stand and plunked him in the authorized Christmas tree spot in the living room.

After a few minutes I hear:

“It’s raining – did you roll up the windows to your truck?”

“How could it be raining? We just left Lowes and it was a crystal clear night.”

We listened more.

Our half-dog, Coco, was sitting under the newly installed Lowes tree.

Christmas needles were slowly coating his body.

Dead brown needles.

Imagine Lowes selling a tree that had been cut – not the previous week in North Carolina and shipped gingerly to Mississippi with care – but two months earlier in the Mountains of Peru and smuggled in by dubious means.

The trip to southeast Mississippi must have been hard on the old boy.

Another trip to Lowes to return a dead tree.

Next stop: Home Depot. We found a less-dead tree that was willing to keep its green-ish needles attached at least until January 7. After that, it would be more likely to invite flames and destruction.

So, if you’re gonna buy a real tree, at least get a good alarm system.

Merry Christmas!

New Roads and Pop Stars

I like new routes home

New roads to me

Roads I’ve never taken before

Especially on clear nights

Tonight the sky looks like



Sparkling beyond the trees

And I’m driving home

From Fort Campbell, KY

A sign says, “Golden Bayou”

Who are they kidding?

Just a creepy swamp to me

And I’ve never felt an affinity for creepy swamps at night

But, tonight I’m going home a different way

My job has taken me far away

The hour is late and I am tired

My eyes refuse to stay open

So, I’m listening to every song on my phone’s playlist

Every single one!

Who does that?

Large amounts of caffeine, Taylor Smith, and Three Dog Night

Or is it Swift?

I am too tired to remember

And I promised not to look at my phone when I drive

Well, whatever her name is

She’s keeping me awake

For the moment

High energy rock


Must stay awake

This is farm country

The Mississippi Delta

The roads are long, flat, and disappear into the horizon

Please keep me awake a little longer old rock song

Or new pop song – I don’t care which

Airplanes line up in the sky

Like little school children

Ready to go home

Their landing pattern swings them just a bit into Arkansas

Then a smooth touchdown in Memphis

Happy passengers disembark

The Delta’s full of rice fields

And I’m just a tiny speck

To the sleepy passengers above

Maybe like a grain of rice

To a hungry bird

Stars over Arkansas

My journey home is interrupted a second time tonight

By a passing train

On Highway 64 West

How does this happen?

I never get stopped by trains

But at least the music is loud

The caffeine does it job

And the stars seem bright as day

And I can almost hear the voice

Of my sweet bride

Welcome me home again.

Just Outside of Silas

Our main job was to clean her refrigerator.


It’d been about a year since our last visit to clean the icebox and, well, grandma hadn’t done anything since then to prevent a perfect storm of chemical reactions from destroying the house, county, and possibly the western hemisphere.

So, once again, my parents and older siblings negotiated the scientific experiment in grandma’s kitchen, which likely would have made any high school science teacher, or any research chemist, jealous.

Basically, they’d throw everything out.


Ever seen a glass jar of tomatoes after a year of bacteriological shenanigans in the refrigerator?

It’s not pretty.

After an hour or so of baptizing, purifying, and sanitizing the refrigerator, we’d drive up to the city of Butler, the largest town in Choctaw County, and buy more food to replenish her pantry and refrigerator.

And hope for the best.

I was just seven, but I suppose that the idea of ignoring the refrigerator for expansive amounts of time would have seemed fairly normal to me.

And probably most men regardless of age.

Except that I didn’t know what expansive meant.

At the local dollar store in Butler, I scored a toy airplane. It was powered by four D-cell batteries, which allowed the lights to flash and the motor to propel the plane forward as if it was taking off from a full-scale runway like Hartsfield or JFK.

Which is kinda what airplanes are supposed to do.

My Grandma stood in the dirt driveway in front of her house looking puzzled at my new toy for a few long moments, smiling, then frowning.

Clearly there was something wrong.

“Why ain’t it flying,” she hollers.

It dawns on me now that at the time she’d completely misunderstood the full nature of the toy selection available at retail establishments in the city of Butler for the lower end of the economic sector in southwest Alabama in the early 1970s.

“It don’t fly grandma,” I yell back.

Of course, the inability to fly could have pointed to insufficient speed, inadequate lift, and the red Alabama sand sure wasn’t helping things.

But I’m seven years old and I don’t even know the concept of lift, or air speed, why it’s hard for my dad to stay sober, or why grandma doesn’t know to clean out her refrigerator.

Why did we only go to see grandma once a year?

I’m pretty sure that her refrigerator needed a more periodic cleaning intervention than that.

I don’t have a good answer because I’m only seven.

Grandma gives up on the non-flying plane and is content to watch the battery-operated 747 meander in the dusty driveway just outside of Silas.

The batteries eventually give up on trying to move the tiny wheels, which really weren’t designed to work in the sand after all.

And in a little while, it’s time to load up the station wagon and head home.

As we pull out, I’m horrified to see the tires decimate much of the upper third of the landing strip, which is gonna take me a lot of time to repair.

As we head east on Highway 84, I stare back at the little church building just beyond some overgrown grass.

As I recall, the grass was always overgrown there.

It was the Full Gospel Tabernacle.

Or something like that.

The adults in my life told me that she started that church and preached there too.

My brother and sisters would sometimes attend services, if we stayed over on a weekend.

But I don’t ever remember being there for worship services.

I did hear, on occasion, a loud organ and songs flowing through the thinly built walls:

“I’ll fly away, oh glory

I’ll fly away in the morning

When I die, Hallelujah by and by

I’ll fly away”

I’m nine now.

And we’ve made the two hour drive north to Silas again.

The airstrip is completely gone now.

The grass is still high, but the little church is full of people. I’m not sure it’ll hold any more.

My dad sits in the front row with my aunt and uncle.

Tears flow down their faces and they occasionally hug each other.

I don’t know why she had to go, and I am angry that death had created so much sadness.

I’m sitting on a wooden pew off to my dad’s right and we’ve got a view of the whole place.

It’s crazy hot in here.

Apparently, air conditioning hasn’t made it to Choctaw County.

A flock of hand-held paper fans with a picture of Jesus holding a baby lamb are busily flapping their wings to provide if only a small breeze to each mourners’ face.

Like giant butterflies, they flutter but the hot humid air doesn’t surrender.

And like my seventh-grade teacher at Adams Middle School would often remind us, “ya just moving hot air around.”

I see why funeral homes have cornered the market on these noisy critters. If you’re gonna wave something to keep cool, you might as well advertise on it.

The service ends, we drive to the grave site, say good once again, and pile in the car.

The drive home is long.

And, not surprisingly, hot.



There’ll be no more rancid refrigerators to explore (please, oh please, let her example be a lesson to my other living relatives).

There’re be no more dollar store airplanes that refuse to defy gravity.

But just maybe …

Maybe now she can see better

From her current view

I believe now that with just a little more imagination

Plastic airplanes

And wounded spirits

can lift to new heights

And sometimes soar.

And fly away

By and by

Sleeping Ducks

“Where are all the ducks?” Sam asked in his sleepy four-year-old voice.

Normally a large group of ducks congregated in the narrow path to our home, making driving tough if we were in a hurry to get home.

“Well, Sam, they’re sleeping,” I assured him.
“No way silly,” Sam protested.
“Ducks don’t sleep.”
Remember he’s four.
Sam’s only experience with ducks was that they were always active, always on the move, and usually in our way.
“No, son,” I said quietly,” they’re sleeping. Just like we sleep, they also need their rest.” 
He paused and considered the point I’d made and slowly acquiesced to the radical concept of ducks sleeping.
“Ducks sleep? Ducks sleep.
“Where do they sleep?”
“Well, Sam, they usually snuggle together near the water.”
“Aren’t they scared to be out there in the dark?”
“Nah,” I assured, “God watches over them just…
He paused and accepted for the moment that ducks sleep and aren’t necessarily afraid to sleep out in the open near the water absent a bed, conditioned air, and a roof.
That night Sam woke several times complaining of a sore throat.
By 9:00 am we were in the hospital preparing for an emergency tonsillectomy. 
Life is always lived in the fast lane with a four-year-old.
But then his kidneys refused to “wake up” after surgery.
I don’t know why.
The problem is, neither does anyone else around here.
Oh, the doctor says that they’ll probably wake up in a few days and not to worry.
I find it hard not to worry as I watch an ugly dialysis machine wheeled into his room every day. 
“Please God let his kidneys wake before morning,” I pray.
And I pray.
And I watch the sun – a fiery ember through the hospital window.
It sets, slowly.
Not far away, in the pond, in the children’s park, a duck family quietly gets ready for bed.

The Price of Russian Gasoline

Russia – 1992. My translator’s mother, who had a broken leg at the time, hops into the small Russian made Lada (see this picture and think of a ripoff of a 1970s Corolla). She makes her way into the passenger’s seat. Her daughters also squeeze into the tiny car. Four people with thick cold-weather gear pressed and sautéed into a tin can.


We pull out of the parking lot after church on a Sunday morning and head for lunch. Fifty feet down the snow-packed road, the engine stops. I have a terrible feeling because I know the exact reason why it’s not running. 

At that point, the oldest daughter informs me, in her direct Russian way, to make the car “go.”

Make it go American!”

I don’t bother offering an opposing view.

She even motions with her arm to make the thing go because one, we’re all hungry and two, her mom has limited walking ability. She can’t understand just why I let the car engine die in the first place.

And all I can think of is that it’s my stupid fault that this poor lady is going to have to disembark this tin can, shuffle across the very slippery snow and ice (with crutches in sub-zero weather), and make it safely back to some semblance of shelter before we can get an alternate ride.

Or eat lunch. Which is important.

It all started with an assumption a day earlier.

For the record, the car was parked in the garage (pictured above) for the winter, which lasts about 98 months out of the year in northern Russia.  Below the garage is a small, dug-out, dirt basement. I am guessing it’s where Russians hide on occasion.

Or listen to Radio Free America.

My translator and I were on a mission to retrieve the car but found that it was out of gas. In the garage, stairs led to the small basement. In the dark basement, a few containers stood defiant of the arctic weather. They were also full. I asked the translator what exactly was in the containers. She had no helpful information. 

The man, her dad, who had filled the containers and left them there was at that time in Africa and therefore, unavailable for comment.

I opened the top and smelled the contents of the containers. My nose assured me that it was gasoline. A logical line of reasoning.

I thought, “great. Gasoline. Let’s fill up the car and get going.”

I emptied said liquid into the faux Toyota and we were off – for about 50 yards. After the engine died, we pushed it back to the garage and determined that the liquid was not, in fact, gasoline, but water.


To this day, I do not know why a grown man would store water in gasoline cans – instead of, say, GASOLINE. But I digress.

I tried siphoning out the excess water, but much remained in the tank. Too much. So, because I am really smart, I later added lots of gas to dilute the water.

Yes. Really.

To my surprise, the little car would actually start and stay running, as long as I left the ignition on.  Which is what I had done the Sunday morning in question.

Because water doesn’t really mix well with gasoline (who knew?), the water eventually drowned out the internal combustion process (again) and left us all stranded there 50 yards from we had met for worship.

The subzero temperature didn’t make for a pleasant walk the two miles back to their home either.

Eventually, some nice Russian mechanics removed the gas tank and poured out the water that I had installed while floundering around in that dark garage hideout-basement a few days earlier. Those few days were not pleasant. But they were certainly a few days of misery that I could have avoided by simply paying more attention and assuming less. Maybe I could have lit a match and checked for combustion.

Or maybe not…

What I do remember was that the price of that “gasoline” was pretty high.


Subscribe to Paul’s Site:


Taylorsville, Mississippi:  It’s a tiny place. A guy in a blue Chevrolet pick-up truck drives past me, extends one hand, and waves as if he knows me.

I don’t know him, but I wave back.

I’m pretty sure that if I tried that in New York City I’d be assaulted and or arrested.

This little hand-waving thing reminds me of my dad and riding in his truck.

My dad had a habit of always waving at approaching vehicles – one hand on the wheel, another hand holding a Pall Mall cigarette (ashes on the seat and floorboard).  If a hand was empty, it’d be holding a cup of sugar and milk – with a touch of coffee.

My dad grew up in a little town in southwest Alabama. I’m guessing they wave a lot there.

I grew up with the smell of these aromatic cigarettes and, although I don’t mind the smell of some pipe tobacco and most cigars, cigarettes just kill me.

My dad was a real life red-headed step-child. At the age of 17, he lied to join the Army. He made it just in time for the end of World War II. This gave him a chance to see some more of the world than Choctaw County.

Once he told me, during commercial breaks of Black Sheep Squadron, that he’d been, in no particular order, a driver for an Army general, a mechanic, and a drill instructor. At Camp Campbell, the Army even taught him to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

He didn’t stay in the Army long.

And in the big picture, he didn’t stay here for a long time either.

He left us when he was 55.

That was a lifetime ago.

I can’t imagine how he’d react to knowing that I married a Russian, or that smartphones exist, or even what Bluetooth is.

I wish he knew.

Sometimes I can still imagine him driving that blue and white 1974 Chevrolet Pick-up truck with white tool boxes on each side. He’s holding a cigarette and a large cup of coffee is precariously situated in front of him – sloshing occasionally all over the dashboard.

He takes a puff and stretches back against the seat.

And waves at an upcoming driver.

City Barber Shop

The City Barber Shop had been in business for as long as I could remember. Located by the local Western Auto Store, it was owned and operated by a guy named Roger and it was the place where I remember getting my first hair cut. I must have been around 4 or 5 years old. My dad drove me on a Saturday morning. Roger placed a wooden board on the barber chair so I would sit up high enough. I always asked for a “GI,” which had to be the easiest haircut possible. I doubt that it was my first haircut, it’s just the first memory I have. I’m also pretty sure that my elderly sister used to cut my hair before then.
During one weekend of visiting the Gulf Coast, I got up early and was at his place at 7:30 because I wanted to be first in line. He always provided the best haircut I’ve had from any barber.
Roger’s shop also made it easy to meet people who reconnected me with people and places I’d forgotten as well as sometimes correct faulty memories.
On that morning, I met a guy who’d graduated from Satsuma 12 years before I did. We learned that we had connections; he worked in the HVAC business (I once sort-of worked in this business) and we both went to Satsuma High School. But his last name is what got my attention.
As a 10-year old, I played baseball for the Shelton Beach Pharmacy Wildcats for three years. This was my first time to play organized baseball. Coach Byrd was, well, the coach. I have memories of going over to his house on McKeough Street to try on uniforms, of riding in the back of his green pickup truck to practice, and of his love of coaching.
As I spoke with the guy at the barber shop, I learned that he and Coach Byrd were brothers. Once, he allowed me to pitch during practice – a mistake that a guy named Ernie regretted as I threw a wild pitch right into Ernie’s back. Thankfully, he didn’t charge the mound. I also remember the confidence that I gained by playing for Coach Byrd.
Sadly, his brother told me that Coach Byrd had passed away several years earlier.
When I drove down for my brother’s funeral a few years ago, I saw that Roger’s barbershop was being refurbished. I didn’t think anything of it because it had always needed to have the floor raised because just a little rain caused flooding. But, the shop was not being remodeled for Roger. It was for new tenants. Roger had passed away and South Alabama had lost the best barber it had. Rest in peace Roger.


They’re made of lime wood and crafted in a way to allow one to fit inside the other. I imagine lots of wasted wood on the floor as the excess wood is hollowed out. Here’s a good video on how Russians make them.

Or, if you will, Nesting Dolls. They’re really just decorative dolls.

They hide inside each other, waiting to be opened and displayed. We keep a large stash of them for gifts for guests.

I listened to a preacher friend reference them one of his sermons recently. He was going along and making some point and forgot the Russian word and just called them nesting dolls. I was a little disappointed.

For the record they’re called, a “Matryoshka.” (Ignore the British pronunciation in the youtube video.)

Frankly, I was confused as to why he couldn’t remember the word, “Matryoshka.”

It’s pronounced just like it’s written.


(That’s supposed to be funny right there.)

It’s almost as bad as the word, zdravstvujtye (Здра́вствуйте), which is a formal way of saying hello in Russian.

Who doesn’t love a language that’s comfortable with 6 to 10 consonants in a row – with not a vowel in sight?

I married a Russian. At our wedding, we a bunch of matryoshkas on the sign-in table. And apparently, some people don’t like matryoshkas. One girl wasn’t happy with what she thought they represented – children. I don’t know why.

“They represent children. Right!”

Her face turned red. I ignored her, having lots of other things on mind that day.

I certainly couldn’t think as to why that would have been a bad thing.

For the record, I like them.

And for the two little girls who would later join our family, they look nothing like their representative nesting doll.

But they both can pronounce them correctly.


I was nine years old. the first time I quit. The reason that I left little league football was not because I didn’t want to play.

I did.  

I had the usual football heroes like Roger Staubach and Archie Manning, which reflects my old age and NFL geographical viewing area more than anything else.

The real reason I quit football at the mature age of nine was to punish my dad for being a chronic alcoholic.  Although he’d stop drinking in a year or so, he was still living life as a sloppy and mostly angry drunk.

And for some odd reason, I didn’t appreciate having an occasionally violent and sloppy drunk for a dad.

I knew that he wanted me to play and to be successful. He didn’t know that I’d never rise above 5 feet 9.5 inches. Regardless, I decided to punish him and quit.

There was no chance for a budding career in college or pro if I didn’t play. So when the coach eventually called to check on me for missing practice, I told him that I quit.

“That’ll teach him,” I thought.

But here’s the problem with quitting.  It only gets easier.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes quitting is probably the right call.

Say you’ve been puffing away at two packs of aromatic cigarettes for years. With the right amount of motivation or nicotine substitute, you might be able to quit and recover some semblance of a normal life.

Alcoholics can also quit.

On a completely different topic, once a nurse asked if I smoked as part of her standard screening questions. I said no, but was willing to try. She laughed.

But I think that quitting simply to hurt others is just immature.

Sometimes we quit because of fear.

I have a friend who once brought his fiancée a wax rose (he couldn’t find an open florist – or so he said).  There’s nothing quite like like trying to express commitment in the gift of a fake rose. He eventually got cold feet and canceled their wedding. In other words, he quit.

Unfortunately, I’ve used the quiting card several more times through the years with jobs, people, and half-finished blog posts. Sometimes it was the right thing to do.  

Many times it was not.

I wish I had not quit playing football when I was nine. I wish that my dad had never started drinking.

I also wish I’d not quit 9th-grade algebra in the 12th grade, but we all have to play with the hand we’ve been dealt.




My dad pulled into the driveway after a day of working his air-conditioning business.

But he left the engine running so he could listen to a song on the radio.

He hadn’t said a word for the last several minutes. But for the moment, he was listening only to that song.

It was an Elvis song.

I can’t say that he was a particular Elvis fan, but I think he liked him.

As the truck rolled to a full stop, Elvis was not yet finished singing. So, dad put the transmission in “park” and left the engine running. He wanted to hear the last of the song.

And then I noticed something different.

Tears were rolling down his face.

I’d always known that my dad was emotional. He could watch an old war movie and remember something from his past and tears would roll down his face.

He could speak to an AA meeting and recall the details of some terrible event or story in his lifetime and tears would come.

We sat there, engine running, and Elvis singing.

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his mama cries
‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his mama cries …

Dad was an actual red-headed step-child. And they were poor.

I’m not even sure what his dad did for a living. He may have been a farmer. I do know that dad started drinking at around ten years old. He learned the craft from an old guy that lived next door who made moonshine.

Which was probably cool to a 10-year-old.

He managed to continue the art of drinking for the next 30 or so years.

Maybe that’s why the song was so emotional to him. Perhaps he saw himself in that little boy that Elvis sang about.

Just another nameless kid growing up in a place with no chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

Maybe he saw his own mother crying. Severe poverty. No father for her firstborn.

I don’t know.

I just know that the sappy song made him tear up there in our driveway one hot summer afternoon.

And I’m glad.