Russia winters, hot tea, and avoiding glass in your cup

“You’re probably doing this wrong.”

Don’t you get tired of these stupid headlines?

I too!

  • You’re Eating Apples All Wrong
  • You’re Making Beans All Wrong
  • You’re Eating Pizza All Wrong
  • You’re Eating Tofu All Wrong

I could go on.

Why would you eat tofu?

Regardless, let me share why you’re probably making sweet tea all wrong.

You’re welcome!

Once, I was in Russia and I just wanted sweet tea.

That’s all.

As it turns out, they don’t drink cold sweet tea in Russia.

I don’t know why?

Maybe the communist indoctrination against all that’s good and right.

We stayed in a dormitory in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic (or state) and home to a university full of Russian and Komi students studying foreign languages. There was one Princess in the whole lot. Could things get any better?

But that is another story.

Like most Alabamians, I love snow – for about 10 minutes.

And then it’s time for short pants and flip-flops.

After being in the apartment for a while, what I really wanted was cold Sweet Tea.

Of course, it’s assumed to have ice. Who’d drink tea hot?

Apparently, Russians and, well, a lot of the world.

Who knew?

I need to get out more.With this desire for sweet tea, I plundered through the communal kitchen and found a Siberian sized glass jar.

With this desire for sweet tea, I plundered through the communal kitchen and found a Siberian sized glass jar.

Perf.

I boiled some water, threw in some Lipton tea bags that I had smuggled into the communist enclave (for emergency purposes), and emptied a five-pound bag of sugar into the boiler.

It’s a Paula Deen recipe.

Then, I needed a cool place to complete the whole sweet tea cycle of life. The refrigerator in the kitchen was either too small or too crowded to house my newly created sweet tea. I wasn’t deterred. I knew a cool place.

Did I mention that I was 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle?

No?

I was.

The good thing was that I got to see Polar Bears wander occasionally out the window.

There was one window in the room; a double window. You open one window and there’s another window about a foot away to open, if you dare. The only problem was that your skin would freeze and fall off your face when you smacked it on the window frame upon your quick retreat.

But don’t get ahead of me.

The jar of sweet tea sat on the outer window ledge for less than an hour waiting for me to bring it in from the cold and enjoy sugary sweetness.

Let’s just say that placing the hot Siberian jar in the sub-zero weather turned out to be a tactical error. Obeying the laws of science (which happens in Russia too – who knew?), the glass jar failed to adequately contain the quickly expanding tea, water, and sugar, which, not surprisingly, had a beautiful crinkly-crushed-cellophane pattern.

It reminded me of my daughter’s screen on her iPhone after a face-first landing on the pavement.

You get the idea.

So, no sweet tea, unless I wanted it with crunchy glass crystals.

I decided that it was probably a good time to join the rest of the world and learn to drink hot tea.

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Dad, Bud Rose, and Machine Gun Kelly

To successfully navigate the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one must have a sponsor to keep the drunk from continuing on this path.

My dad’s sponsor is the guy in this photo.

I’ve listened to my dad, through smoke-filled rooms, give testimony to his life with and without alcohol.

I preferred without.

Thankfully, he did too.

After sitting through more than a few AA meetings, I’m convinced that all alcoholics really just trade the alcohol for coffee and cigarettes. For those familiar with the area, the house on Bayou Sara Avenue near Cedar Street, was where I heard him talk the most and not coincidentally where I learned to drink coffee.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the guy standing to the right of my dad was actually, Colonel Sanders.

It sure looks like him.

I halfway expect him to pull out a bucket of fried chicken – original recipe!

He’s actually a man named Bud Rose.

He lived in Memphis and I remember him talking to my dad in our house in Saraland about getting sober. He had a Big Book and spoke about admitting that he was “powerless over alcohol … and that his life … “had become unmanageable.

Yes. It was.

Dad drove to Memphis a lot to speak or to listen to Bud speak.

But Bud had a secret (sort of). And I’m hoping that this doesn’t constitute some old FBI secret.

Bud’s claim to fame was being a body guard for the American gangster from Memphis, George Francis Barnes Jr., better known as Machine Gun Kelly. Then he’d lift his shirt and display a large and gruesome scar on his stomach that was produced, allegedly, by a machine-gun.

For a similar visual, see Lyndon Johnson showing off his surgical scar to reporters.

Sometimes I get the chance to talk about terrorism and its history in the U.S. And Bud’s story makes for a nice introduction to the topic.

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Living on Russian Time

Searcy, AR:  Last week we had some nice folks from Harding University for a Russian dinner. I suppose American suppers were out of the question. But, because we’ve got a few Russians hanging around, one of whom can cook, we opted for the Russian cuisine.

And as everyone knew would be the case, my wife’s mom executed almost all the cooking duties flawlessly. Then we sat around and talked about Russia.

My father-in-law, who usually inserts a story or two from the Motherland, recounted a tale about a building project. He was a pretty important person in Russia and was involved in a lot of the building projects. I’m not sure if his work included the statute of Lenin near the airport (or the one at just every street corner in town).The project he described was scheduled to be completed by the end of the calendar year.

The project he described was scheduled to be completed by the end of the calendar year.

Which sounds reasonable. Unless there just isn’t enough time to complete said project by the end of the year.

Then, there could be problems.

He explained that the government was making an addition to the hospital and it was crucial that the project must be completed before December 31.

BEFORE the end of the year!

I don’t know why this project had to be completed by then. Maybe communism would, like a famous carriage, turn back into a pumpkin.

Who knows?

If you’re looking for logic, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But, when it became clear that the project would not be finished by the end of the year, the communists did what any communist would do.

Simply accept reality and plan accordingly that the project would run into the new year.

No.

Of course not.

Their solution? Extend the year.

One of the communist’s slogans was that “communists didn’t need the sun because communism made its own light” or something like that.

If they could control the sun, then they controlled the calendar.My father-in-law finished the story by saying that he signed the paperwork himself that “extended” the year.

So, my father-in-law finished the story by saying that he signed the paperwork himself that “extended” the year.

The completion date?

December 44.

The power of the pen has no boundary.

Who knows what would have happened if they had actually finished the project January.

Just don’t tell them that they did.

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The 511th Airborne Infantry Regiment Company K

This is a picture of my dad’s jump school class at Camp Campbell, KY in 1950. Sixty-five years later, I would make my way to this same happy place on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. I never once considered jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. I am currently studying the Korean Way and the Cabanatuan Raid in the Philippines, which occurred in January of 1945.

I spend a lot of time scouring the internet for pictures of my dad’s unit. If you know someone in the picture, please leave a comment. You’ll also notice that my dad’s photo is crisper than the other photographs. The reason is that I also have the 8×10 of my dad. The photographer just compiled all the students’ 8x10s and made this collage. I just placed the better version of the photo over his picture.

One more thing, you’ll notice that some of the men are “x’ed” out. In the late 1970s, dad was looking for surviving Army buddies who could corroborate his military injury to help with his application for VA disability. The men with the X had passed away by that time. I don’t think he was able to contact but just one or two former classmates. Dad injured his head in a jump in Germany, which required a metal plate in his skull. I always knew he was hard-headed.

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Law School, Barbie Dolls, and Maternity Riders

Fayetteville, AR: There are a few things that professors will tell you not to do when you are in law school.

Don’t get married.

Don’t have a baby.

Don’t rob Federal Reserve banks.

Crazy, right?

Thankfully, my experience in these endeavors is limited.

And the statute of limitations hasn’t run yet, so…

I’ll just stick to my story here.

At the tender age of 33, I went back to college. Before that, I’d been preaching for small conservative churches and wanted to get away from all the legalism.

So, I went to law school.

Anyway, my bride and I found ourselves at the University of Arkansas where one of the benefits of attending is free health care.

Well, it’s only free if you don’t count the millions of Arkansans whose involuntary taxes contributed to the costs.

Thank you fine Arkansas tax payers for your generosity!

One of the riders to that health insurance was that pregnancy was covered. For some reason, I think this was a popular addition.

We already had an 18-month-old girl when I started law school.

But my wife wanted two girls, not just one. And she wanted them to be about the same distance apart in age as she was from her sister.

Law school is stressful enough so don’t complicate it by doing more stressful stuff.

Which is apparently why we decided to have a baby in my second year of law school. I even missed a final exam to welcome our second girl into the world.

I think that some classmates got married.

But that’s still not the point.

At the appropriate time, we went to the university health clinic for a pregnancy test.

At the time in the late 1990s, when a student visited the campus medical clinic, he or she would have been greeted with a life-size Barbie doll staring like a crazed zombie at the sick students waiting to receive Benadryl or other life-saving medicine.

Let me say that again: A life-sized Barbie doll. Well over 6 feet tall.

She was creepy.

I don’t know if it is still there but it was not very appealing, unlike the Mattel Russian Barbie I had purchased for my bride.

Which was pretty and stayed that way until one of our girls gave her a hair-cut years later.

We were pretty sure that my bride was pregnant. But we had to get the official test from the clinic so some insurance official could make a car or house payment that month.

A few minutes later a young woman sits down in front of us with a stern look on her face.

And I could tell that she didn’t want to tell us the results of her findings.

Just tell us the news.

“Well,” she began. She was nervous.

“The results are back and, well… Well, um…”

Come on, just say it.

“You’re pregnant.”

(Actually, only one of us was…)

But we both breathed a sigh of relief and happiness.

The worker, for a nano-second, was confused but then sensed our happiness and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh, good.”

She was visibly and sincerely relieved to see that we were happy.

I suspected that this announcement wasn’t always met with happiness.

I wouldn’t want her job.

We said thank you to the nice clinic worker and goodbye to the creepy Barbie as we exited the clinic and went shopping for diapers and baby clothes.

“Hey, Honey. Nicole sounds like a good name for a girl, don’t you think?”

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Reading to Love

I learned this bit of information from my wonderful Aunt Dola in Washington, KY recently. When married, in 1903, my grandfather (Ollie Manning) couldn’t read. My grandmother (Mary Jones Manning) taught him to read. She was about 15 years old and he was about 26 on their wedding day.
This picture shows them on their wedding day (and it seems strange to me that the man is sitting down, but at least it’s not a selfie with duck lips). (The reason for sitting could also be that he is just so much taller than she. Sitting was better than making her look so short in comparison – even though she was short).

The other photo shows my grandfather reading the Bible to his sweet wife after her eyesight diminished later in life. Sadly, I never knew either one of them as my mom was the baby of 13 kids.

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Russian Collusion

For a long time, after the (evil) American embassy worker in Moscow denied her request for a visa, I thought about getting my fiancé (somehow) to Mexico. Then she could easily cross the southern border into the USA.Texas.

Right!

I honestly didn’t care if I got her here legally or illegally.

I didn’t care because I didn’t know the implications of the illegal method.

Now I do.

But if she could just get here, we could get married and everything would be perfect.

I’ve no idea how I would have gotten her to Mexico. I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

You see, I had fallen in love with my translator in Russia and had asked her to marry me that August at a park in Satsuma, Alabama. The park was once the site of a house that we lived in when I was four.

I thought that’d be romantic.

The only problem (and this has been a major theme in my life) was ignorance.

I just didn’t know about fiancee visas.

So, I did the only thing I knew to do.

First, a little background: All the guys with whom I traveled to Russia did so on business visas. We went as missionaries but had business visas.

You get there any way you can right?

So, to get my fiancé here, we applied for a business visa.

I could feel the wheels of brilliance turning.

So, this 18-year-old stunningly beautiful Russian woman sashays into the American Embassy in Moscow and applies for a tourist/business visa.

The striking problem was that such a visa means you’re going to return to Russia when you’re done with your, um, business.

But that wasn’t the plan.

And that was patently obvious to the mean American Embassy workers.

I thought it didn’t matter how she got here, just that she got here. And the ceremony would have fixed anything wrong with any possible illegalities of an invalid border crossing.

I was wrong. So wrong.

Did I mention ignorance?

So only after long waits at the embassy in Moscow with the aforementioned rude Americans turning down her request for a visa, did I learn about the “K” visas.

Not Special K mind you.

Turns out all I had to do was to apply and – voila – it was approved.

Who knew immigration could be so easy?

A year and a half after I’d met her, and after lots of anguish at trying to get here the wrong way, we married in Alabama.

I don’t know the answer to the problem of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. I just know that we got the right paperwork – eventually – and were patient. Of course, if she were here illegally and I met her at that point, I’d probably have a different attitude.

Love conquers all.

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Yugos and Lost Wars

I’m at Vacation Bible School on a Tuesday night in central Arkansas.

I love going to VBS.

When our girls were little, we’d take them to every possible VBS we could find. Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, Church of God, Catholic, Free Range, Wiccan, didn’t matter.

Just kidding about the Wiccan, although I once saw a surrogate mom who was a Wiccan.

Maybe she was fictional.

Most of the VBSs were surprisingly homogenous. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they all bought their VBS material from the same place – maybe Nashville. But that’s just a guess.

There was one little Baptist church way out in the sticks east of Vilonia that we visited. Everyone just stared at us. They obviously had never had visitors, which made me wonder why they advertised in the newspaper in the first place.

But they had good cookies. That’s what I really look for in a VBS.

The church where I am tonight has, for the adult class, set up tents inside the building with tables of food. There are signs on each tent: Sweets, Drinks, Appetizers, Chips and Dips.  It is an efficient setup. The wall behind the podium reads “He-brews Café” with a large picture of a cup of coffee.

On the PowerPoint projector, the slide reads, “Foolish vows and their fatal consequences.”

And I start thinking about all the foolish promises I’ve made. As the list grows quickly, I realize this isn’t a good idea and return my focus back on the food.

With the notable exception of marrying a lovely Russian Princess, I can relate to making foolish decisions.

Buying a Yugo definitely rates on the top of the list. I got it from a car dealer in Daphne, Alabama, who obviously had no shame about selling the worse car in history in the first place. A close second is the purchase of new gray (black interior) Chevrolet S-10 from a dealer in Citronelle with no air conditioning.

Let that sink in for a sec… South Alabama in the summer and no AC.

I still think the dealership should have been prosecuted for cruel and inhumane treatment for selling anything without A/C.

These two decisions would rank high on almost anyone’s list.

The place is only about 20% full at the moment – but more are trickling in.

The chocolate chip cookies are excellent as are the rest of the dishes. I expected no less at a church potluck. I turned down a cup of coffee because I didn’t want to be up all night and instead went for the sweet tea.

I really need to work on my reasoning skills.

A few minutes later and we’re almost at 80% capacity. Almost everyone is balancing a Styrofoam plate, napkin, and cup as the speaker begins his lesson.

The guy in front of me reaches over to his plate of shrimp, which is sitting in an empty metal folding chair to his left and dips one of the crustaceans into some kind of red sauce. The professor steps to the podium.

I knew the guest speaker in graduate school in Nashville back in the 1990s. Which seems a really long time ago now. I say that I knew him because, well he’s pretty famous now. He went on from Nashville to do Ph.D. work somewhere. So, he’s a smart guy.

I just noticed that there are coffee pots and bags of coffee beans propped up around the room. Now the “He-brews” motif makes more sense.

I really need to work on my observation skills too.

As I recall, old Jephthah got into a bind, prayed to the Lord for help, and promised God that if God rescued him he would sacrifice the first thing that walked out of his house when he returned home.

Seemed reasonable. And generous. His making a deal with God seems a little like Burt Reynolds in the movie, “The End” where Reynold’s character tells shouts out, as he drowns, that if God would only save him, he would give God all of his money. Or something like that.

But here’s the big error message that should have been flashing in Jephthah’s mind: “what are the possibilities of things that can walk out of my front door?”

I am guessing that he didn’t consider that his daughter would be the “first thing” that sashayed out.

Just so you’ll be clear here: Jephthah supposedly agreed to sacrifice his daughter to God as a human sacrifice because…. wait for it…

She was the first thing (human actually) that walked out the front door of the house.

Wouldn’t he expect his family to greet him after a long absence?

I know I have been on the receiving end of a welcome home greeting many times after being away on government service.

But, would God even accept a human sacrifice?

I have my doubts that he actually followed through with this insane promise. But, hey, what do I know about ancient and near eastern religion and culture?

Regardless, it’s a serious lesson on making foolish and destructive decisions.

I remember years ago, trying to use the logic of Jephthah when I tried to get out of a contract that I had signed. The Air Force officer listen to me politely, but a contract is a contract, so no luck.

The book of Judges is just sad. And dysfunctional.

And this dysfunctional family of God never really learned: The Israelites rebel, God disciplines; Israel repents, God delivers.

Rinse and repeat.

Sometimes I feel a lot like the Israelites.

I think I will have that cup of coffee now.

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The Age of Electrical Outlets in Russia

I learned basic electricity in high school.

Because of this stellar academic achievement, I felt well qualified to plug in a Russian appliance.

The appliance is a Russian Samovar, which is basically a glorified tea pot.

The old ones were lit by oil, but this one was electric.

I felt up to the task.

A little about electrical outlets and appliance cords. In the Motherland and most other European countries, electrical outlets are a little different. Most are 220 (give or take a few volts) and 50 cycles, which really is irrelevant to the point, but because I took basic electricity I felt obligated to let you know that I know what that means.

Sometimes, I’d have to use a heavy transformer that I brought with me from the states to power other stuff I lugged along, like computers and hair dryers.

I soon learned that the main purpose of Russian electrical cords is to thin out the foreign population.

So, I am in my future in-law’s apartment and I have a Russian cord in my hand.

It is the electrical cord to the aforementioned Samovar and I’m trying to plug it in so I can boil some water.

Which, is a necessity.

Did I mention that it was 220 volts?

But I am having some difficulty plugging it in – which was a good thing because…

In my other hand is the other end of the cord. The end that plugs into the device – the tea pot.

Oh, and here’s the thing – both ends of the cord have the metal prongs…

Protruding outward.

One end goes into the wall socket, 220 volts, and the other end, also exposed, is securely clutched in my right hand.

And, it ain’t going anywhere because I have a death grip on it.

Where else would it be, right? Normally one would feel safe holding the other end of the cord in your hand because the manufacturer isn’t trying to KILL you!

At least here, I assume, the manufacturer isn’t purposefully taking advantage of the stupidity of the user!

So the first surge of electricity, which is apparently designed to kill stupid Americans unfamiliar with the safety regulations (or lack thereof), shot through my hand and exited my right foot in the matter of milliseconds.

I don’t know how, but I yelled.

This brought the other people in the apartment into the living room to see what the commotion was about!

As they strolled in, I was able to pry the instrument of death from my clenched hand.

So, thank you Russian electrical engineers for designing a superior power cord for thinning out the herd and for the permanent scar on my hand in the shape of two metal prongs.

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My brother’s bike

It was a Kawasaki 900.

Probably a 1978 or 1979 model.

I don’t remember, but it was a beautiful bike.

Dark blue and way too much power for a teenager to handle. Heck, my 5 horsepower Briggs and Stratton mini-bike that my dad bought for me when I was 13 was way too much power for me to handle.

I was a teenager – maybe the 11th grade – and I don’t want to brag or anything, but I had a motorcycle license. In its wisdom, the State of Alabama wouldn’t allow me to drive four-wheeled vehicles at 14, but driving the far more dangerous two-wheel type was just fine.

David is my brother and he spent a lot of time working on the road at construction sites.

The Kawasaki was also his.

He was a welder. No, he was a tremendous welder. And sometimes during my high school years, he and his fiancée got married and moved to Houston, Texas so he could attend tech school and fine-tune his welding skills. Also, being the 1960s hippy that he was, his hair was longer than his wife’s blond locks.

Sometimes during that time, my dad, mom, sisters, and I made the long drive to Houston to see how they were doing. You never know what dangers lurk in Houston.

They were doing pretty well, just a young couple trying to make it in the world. I don’t remember if he was working anywhere, but he was definitely attending school.

One night, we drove to what must have been North Dakota just to watch a movie at a drive-in theater. They were showing a doubleheader and one of the movies was Ode to Billy Joe. I don’t remember the other movie. Did I mention it took a long time to get there?

David was so good at welding that he worked himself up in the construction industry (mainly paper mills) to manage remote welds on nuclear power plants. I don’t know all the specifics, but I remember talking with him about his job and some of the different things that he did.

One of the challenges of his job was that he had to limit his daily exposure to nuclear radiation. Is that something that you have to worry about in your job? Let me say that again, nuclear radiation was a daily concern for David. I quickly concluded that that was something that I probably didn’t want to pursue.

For some reason, he took a great interest in the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in Ukraine.

Who knows why.

But he loved welding and became an expert. Like a lot of welders, he liked working with stainless steel. We made a lot of stainless belt buckles at the Crossett, Arkansas plant, but don’t tell anyone.

Once, I texted him a picture of some nice stainless steel work of a staircase at Fort Campbell, Kentucky where I was stationed at the time. It was just a staircase of a new building, but the stainless-steel work was really nicely done. He later told me how he appreciated that I thought about him and his work.

But, back to the motorcycle. I had my own car at the time that I appropriated David’s Kawasaki. It was a 1973 Dodge Gold Duster, had an imitation snakeskin roof, and some type of clear plastic over the seats. The plastic thing took a little while to get used to. The Duster had a slant-six engine and, while I forget the horsepower, it was just a beautiful car, especially for a punk teenager.

I liked my car, but the motorcycle was way cooler. And one day, David made the tactical error of leaving his motorcycle unattended at mom’s house. So, what’s a little brother to do when the older brother is away?

What would Bueller do?

Exactly.

It was loud. Either it didn’t have mufflers, or they were really bad mufflers, or they were just designed to be as obnoxious as possible.

I suspect the latter.

I hate loud motorcycles, but the cool factor was just too much to pass up.

And, like I said before, this bike was way too much power for me to handle. In the 11th and 12th grade, I would leave school around 11 o’clock or so for trade school in Prichard, which was right beside Vigor High School. I studied air conditioning and heating, just like my dad. He had his own air conditioning company and I’m sure at the time I was planning on going into the trade myself.

On this lovely fall day, I took the Kawasaki. As 11 o’clock approached, I sashayed over to where the numerous other bicycles and motorcycles were parked, beside the cafeteria and the track. I climbed aboard the beautiful Japanese creation and started the engine.

Did I mention the mufflers were loud?

My friend Tim Tutton later told me that although he was clear across campus he smiled when he heard the unmistakable sound of the thunderous Kawasaki rocket cranking up.

It was a beautiful feeling, pulling out of campus onto Maple, then Old Highway 43, then the real 43 and heading south.

I was happy just to be able to use it for a few days and show off on a bike that I clearly had no business riding.

How cool was it to be a clueless teenager and ride such a cool bike when you’re 16 or 17 years old?

Occasionally I’d borrow other stuff too like say, blue jeans. If David was foolish enough to leave his blue jeans at my mother’s house, they were fair game. And bonus if there was currency in the pockets!

I have a few tools that he loaned me now and then through the years. I can’t return them to him because he was killed in a tornado last year in Saint James Parish, Louisiana.

At some point, he grew out of the motorcycle riding, like most sane people do. I did (but I am not making any claim on sanity). I was encouraged to stick to four-wheeled vehicles when I almost became roadkill on Interstate 65 over the Mobile River Delta when a lady in a van drifted into my lane. I am so glad I didn’t kick her van like I wanted to.

I’m not sure what triggered the Kawasaki memory. I long ago filed it away in a dusty file folder in my mind. Maybe that’s what happens when you lose someone close. The dusty memories want to seep out every now and then and remind you that they’re still there, longing for a simple ride in the open air.

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