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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Columbia

Columbia - City of Charm on the River Pearl ...

... at least that's what my police department patch says.  

Lord knows I blew through Columbia many a time in my youth ... It was little more than a couple of redlights set up on highway 98, a place I had to slow down for no real damn reason at all.  I started coming to Columbia when I was 15.  That was 1984.  I had a driver's license (back when you could get a DL at 15), I had a '78 Chevy Rally Sport Camaro and I had no good intentions at all.  Back then, Highway 98 was a two-lane affair rife with blind spots and its own "Bloody 98" reputation for having so many people killed on that stretch of road.

Later, in the late '80's, the MS DOT began to widen the major two-lane highways into four lanes and getting to Columbia from Hattiesburg and back wasn't that much of an adventure anymore.

Columbia never crossed my mind as a place to settle.  I never thought I'd stop here for long let alone marry into this place and live here one day but life is funny strange like that, especially my life.  I guess I should have known that if I passed through a place often enough I'd eventually grow to like it, maybe even enough to live there one day. 

I passed through Columbia many times in high school, on my way to play basketball games at other schools and riding our big school bus with the rest of the team.  Years later, I used to haul medical supplies and specimens for a long defunct medical lab and Marion General Hospital was one of my stops.  I never thought I'd be working there one day let alone working there for twelve years in a row now.

I've been in Columbia for over 15 years now, that's nearly a third of my life.  I look back at where I wanted to be ... somewhere else.  I always thought that I would be the one who would move off ... way off like to Colorado or Texas or Alaska.  Instead I settled thirty miles west of where I grew up.

Big leap there.

I've realized something along the way ... I've realized something over the years ... people leave the area where they grew up not because something is holding them back but rather because there's nothing really holding them back.  I know a lot of people I went to school with who grew up in this area and now they're in other states, scattered across this once great country and I used to be a little jealous of that fact.  I used to sometimes wonder why I hadn't left for somewhere else ... and then I realized that I didn't need to.  Everything that I needed, everything that I wanted in life was right here, just 30 miles west of where I'd grown up and gone to school.

People leave and go far away because they're looking for what they don't have here and often they're not only mistaken but they're dead wrong as well.  It's sad to know that someone you thought was pretty grounded is now on the other side of the country having the exact kind of life that they had here only somehow it's so much better way out there ... or so they tell me.  It's funny that I don't really hear the joy in their words.

Several people that I knew left for the big cities ... New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami ... and most of them are doing about the same as if they had stayed here, some worse, some better.  You couldn't get me to live in a place like New York city ... you don't go to a big city to find yourself, you go there to lose yourself ... to be absorbed because when you live in a city ... a city ... that has five times more people in it than the entire population of the state where you came from then you have to ask yourself one simple question:

"If I couldn't stand out in a place one fifth this size, how am I going to stand out in a place that is five times larger than where I came from?"

I'm 43 years old at the time of this writing and I've had a really good life ... no, scratch that.  I've had one hell of a great life.  I sit back and read about other people on Facebook and I have to smile.  Some are as old as I am and still chasing their dreams ... and truth be known they will probably still be chasing their dreams when the Reaper comes for them, all the while refusing to give up and admit that a dream was all that they were chasing.

John Cougar Mellencamp once sang about the charm or small towns and while I never liked that song when it was new the truth is that the song has grown on me over the years.

So, I live in Columbia.  It wasn't really a choice on my part, no, I married into Columbia way back in 1995.  Two years later I settled here so that my wife could be close to her family and have a job that she wanted.  I didn't mind commuting the 35 miles one way to Hattiesburg each day; I like driving.  A lot of time I turn the radio off and just listen to the hum of the engine, the song of the road and the cool breeze of the climate control system.  There are days when the road is covered in a light haze or a slowly wafting fog.  There are days when God draws up the curtain, slowly, on some of the most magnificent sun rises and slowly lowers the curtain on some of the most beautiful sunsets.  Bad weather tends to break north and south of Columbia though the clouds do get impressive more often than not.

Sometime in 1997 I started working part-time at Autozone ... in addition to my job at the DOT.  I just wanted some extra folding money for the weekend and for my sports cars and sportbikes.  I didn't have kids so ... Sometime in '99 I started looking at a MP position in the Army Reserve and was one step from being sworn in but Y2K was coming up and even though MDOT had to let me go they weren't happy about it since I was the only computer guy in the entire district.  About that time my manager at Autozone talked me into joining the Columbia PD as a reserve officer ... six months of training and all the powers and responsibilities of a regular police officer only I didn't get paid for my time.

I'm glad that I never signed on as the MP ... another guy I went to school with got that position instead and things were good ... until 9/11 when his unit got activated and he was one of the first to get shipped overseas where he stayed for a long time.  If I had chosen the MP position, that would have been my fate as well ... I may not have had children or had them when I did and I certainly wouldn't have been there for them growing up like I was.

Columbia isn't a really exciting place to live ... it's an even more boring place to die.

People have asked me what it's like to live in Columbia.

I have only one answer; Columbia is like Mayberry ... if Quintin Tarantino had directed "The Andy Griffith Show".  In fact, Columbia is one part Mayberry, one part Picket Fences, one part Twin Peaks and one part Twilight Zone.  Columbia is like a frontier town in the Old West ... it's not much to look at, it has its own special charm, it has everything that you need and it gets a bit rowdy sometimes.

For a little while in the 19th century, Columbia was the capital of Mississippi but the capital was later moved to Jackson.  There is a famous large and very beautiful house, very old, that is to this day still referred to as "The Governor's Mansion."  Our courthouse has four giant clocks on it and reminds me of the courthouse and clock in "Back to the Future."

I told you what Columbia is like ... well, it's also part "Eureka."  There have been UFO sightings in and around Columbia and even a few Bigfoot sightings.  Hell, we even have a toxic waste dump that's kind of like Love Canal where I hear that there is a huge pond that has a chemical sheen across the top of it, mutated, tumor sporting fish swimming in it and tiny silver bubbles which burble to the top of the water and burst into puffs of smoke once they reach the surface.  I've never seen any of that but I've heard it often enough to think there might be just a bit of truth in it.   Anyway, it's interesting barber shop or coffee shop talk that seems to come up more often than not.

To give you a taste of what it's like to live in Columbia, I went out for a ride the other day and found myself sitting in the local McDonald's, eating my lunch which has gotten cold since over the last fifteen minutes I've had to talk to and converse with about six different people who know me or recognize me.  Looking out at the highway I see a dust devil swirl by, wind and loose dirt from a construction project nearby.  It might as well be a tumbleweed and the effect would have been the same.

A pair of people wearing western wear and cowboy hats are riding horses at a slow clop through the Super Walmart parking lot.  A woman in a long dress, white gloves and a bonnet is riding a rusty old bicycle through the parking lot trying to sell homemade peanut brittle.  A rusted out Papa Smurf blue Geo Metro with an unlit Domino's Pizza sign on the roof buzzes by sounding like a giant constipated beetle.  

Down the road is the old Walmart which has been gutted and retrofitted to a variety of smaller stores that share space in the strip mall that also has an aging Winn Dixie and the three trio of fast food; KFC, Hardees and Taco Bell.  Next to the Taco Bell, in the same parking lot, is a long ago closed Burger King ... the sign out front reads "CB Whop er Me L" and gives a price that is six years ago. 

Down the road and across the highway from that is the old Jitney Jungle which is now a Tractor Supply store, the old K-Mart which is now a flea market and a host of other small stores including a rent to own, a check cashing place and a liquor store ... the liquor store has been there longer than any other store ... vice is always necessary, it may even be something that Maslow needs to rethink the priority of, even adding it to his hierarchy of needs.

There's other ghosts and free market corpses as well ... the abandoned and half overgrown Sonic on Lumberton.  The steak house that is now a gym.  The two old western wear stores ... the Autozone that I used to work at that's now a consignment shop and had once been a bowling alley long before it was a parts store.  The empty slab where the old A-frame house used to sit across from Autozone ... a house of drunks and poor white trash ... the house where I personally saw two trashy women leave drunk one night ... only to French kiss a tree later that night and both perish in the twisted wreckage of their car.

There's auto parts shops, tanning places, family restaurants that change names and ownership more than they change menus, antique shops, a Walgreen's, gas stations, bait and tackle shops, hunting supply stores ... a Radio Shack ... and a Ward's (fast food).  Ward's is such a tradition in Mississippi that I don't think that you're even allowed to put a city dot on the map unless it actually does have a Ward's.

I finish my cold meal and ride my Honda through my neighborhood, passing a deep creek.  Looking down into the bottom of the creek I notice it is almost dry.  There, on a sandbar in the middle of the creek, with a trickle of water running around each side, is a large gray television set ... just sitting there on the sandbar with the power cord trailing off into the water and I think "there's nothing good on TV."  Two days later a collection of storms moves through the area, heavy downpour and when I ride by the creek  a few days later the TV is gone ... swept away by the raging waters of the swollen creek.

I ride around ... relaxing ... and look for the "Yard of the Month" sign or who got "Student of the Week" this time.  I'm often surprised by what the houses look like where I find those signs in the yard.  I head downtown on my Honda, passing over exposed bricks dating back to the 19th century when roads still weren't paved with asphalt.  I pass down Beef Alley, past buildings that are older than my parents, over railroad tracks that have been almost covered up completely and past loading doors in the sides and rear of buildings big enough to hustle cattle out of train cars and into the buildings. 

I turn and ride past the police station, heading for one of my favorite spots to relax and just be alone.  I ride past Pioneer Aerospace ... the company that makes parachutes for the US government, the company that used to make parachutes for the space shuttle and I remember tales of the employees taking the chutes out to the water park and folding them there.


I ride on to the scenic bend in the river.  I park my Honda, take off my jacket, my helmet and my gloves and sit on the bank watching the water flow by and occasionally a fishing boat or even the local tourist air boat go by.

Columbia: City of Charm on the River Pearl.

I guess that's not too far from the truth and I guess Columbia's not too bad a place to live ... if you like Mayberry and Quintin Tarantino.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Scratchbuild - The Atomic Submarine

Atomic Submarine.

Those two words just bring along a whole lot of images ... the early days of (misunderstood) atomic energy when we thought that atomic powered vehicles were the future, that people would have atomic toasters, atomic ovens, atomic sedans and coupes, personal robots ... days when we thought that atomic energy would mutate insects and creatures into giant monsters yet give humans superpowers.  Naive, blissful days.

I've always liked submarines ... Jules Verne's "Nautilus" was probably my first literary introduction to submarines and the real life American "Nautilus" was not only the first atomic powered submarine but one of the greatest naval achievements of all time.  Before my time but if you've never read about the USS Nautilus then I suggest that you do so.  One day I hope to take a tour of her ... just walking in all of that history would be enough to give me goose-bumps if not a full on patriotic chubby that you could hang a flag from.

Sci-fi is full of submarines and sea monsters ... shows like "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "Sea Quest" showed us submarines that were elegant and that captured our imagination.  The Seaview and the Sea Quest were very different ... the Sea View could have been to the USS Nautilus what the refit starship Enterprise was to the TOS era Enterprise ... although I still wonder how the Sea View fired torpedoes since it has no torpedo tubes or none that I've ever been able to find.  Years ago at Wonderfest I picked up the really big Mobius VTTBOTS "Sea View" but that's a project for another day.

I like shapes.

No, apparently I have some weird fetish for shapes because I can't stop collecting containers, bottles, etc.

I like shapes.  I see things that no one else does.  Case in point,  this project uses a lot of discarded items to build something completely new.  For those of you new to this concept, this is called "scratchbuilding" and I've been doing it for nearly 30 years now.  I've been wanting to get back into the hobby for a while now and this is my entry back into the realm of scratchbuilding ... the Atomic Submarine.

Take one Pantene conditioner bottle, one Pantene shampoo bottle, one Moroccan argan oil bottle, two end caps from some dried up markers my wife discarded, two twist off tops from some Mondo berry flavored juice bottles and a coffee scoop from the dollar store and voila!

Atomic submarine.

I'm not sure what I'm going to paint it right now ... yellow and black in some Peter Elson scheme comes to mind but I could also go with a Elson-like red with black and white detailing.  Here's the pic of items I'm going to use.  There's going to be extra greebles and detailing added and maybe some to-scale figures.  The background story, if any, is also up in the air.

Maybe I'll get some time to work on it this week ...  hopefully.




Tuesday, August 07, 2012

One road ends and another begins ...

August 7, 1992

It's been 20 years since that night long ago ... the night when I graduated college with my BS degree in Business Administration.  I remember that night because it was a happy and sad time.  Happy because I was saying hello to a new life and sad because I was saying goodbye to one of my friends.

1992 had been a year of goodbyes.  By August 8 I had said goodbye to the woman I had thought I was going to marry (see previous post), said goodbye to another woman I should have stayed with and now I was saying goodbye to one of my best friends, Cody.  Cody and I had met the first day of college way back in the fall of 1987 and somehow we had clicked and we'd been friends ever since.  We got separated when I came back home to go to college but we met up again in the Spring of '90 and then kind of grew apart while I dated Katrice.  Once Katrice walked out on me, I got absorbed back into the fold of my old group and the last six months had made up for lost time.

We spent the night at Cody's apartment ... me, him, his girlfriend and Flynn.  Joy was missing.  I missed Joy but she was long gone and far away in Pensacola.  Still, her absence was felt; an intangible absence made tangible by our memories of her and the time that she had spent with us and the time that we had spent with her.  

The four of us drank Bud Light and sweet tea and whiskey and wine coolers and Coke and Dr. Pepper.  We ate cheap carry out pizza from Papa's Pizza across from USM and reminisced on five years of both good and bad memories.  Sometime after 4 in the morning I fell asleep on the couch.  Cody and his girlfriend were already asleep in the recliner, snuggled up and Flynn was rummaging around in Cody's barren fridge for one last beer, the smoke from his cigarette wafting up and away from him, illuminated there in the light of the fridge and silhouetted against the dark of the kitchen.  

I called it quits, closed my burning eyes and woke up four hours later.


Saturday, August 8, 1992

It was light outside.

I checked my watch, got up, stretched, collected my stuff and in doing so woke up Cody and his girlfriend.  One last handshake and a brotherly man-hug from Cody, one hug from his girlfriend and a moment of silence.  The fellowship was ended.  Our post-graduation paths now parted and we were going our separate ways.

Cody was going back to Texas and his girlfriend was going with him.

They had plans for a life together.

I was going on vacation for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains with my family and to see my grandmother's brother and his wife.  I had a job waiting on me when I got back.  Other than that I had no real plans at all. 

When I returned, Cody and his girlfriend would be gone.  Days gone and hundreds of miles away.  That was another sad and happy feeling ... Cody and I had made it out of college together.  He had met a girl.  So had I.  Neither one of us got the girl that we wanted but he got the girl that he needed and I was ...

Alone, through no fault of my own ... or maybe I had made a few mistakes along the way.  I thought of Kelly, gone for over a month.  I thought of Joy ... gone now for four months.  I thought of Katrice ... gone now for six months.  All of them were dust ... ghosts of my past ... intangible absences made tangible by my memories of them. 

Walking out the door of Cody's apartment was like walking into a new life.

I found Flynn sitting on the front window ledge of the apartment, smoking his ... who knew what cigarette number he was on.  He took a swig from his battered flask and held it out to me.  I took a long swig of whiskey and handed it back.  The whiskey burned all the way down and sat smoldering in my empty stomach.  It was a happy and sad feeling as well but the world got a lot more orderly then, better than any coffee could tidy it up, and that was what was important.

And then I realized something ...

I had graduated from college last night.  I had given up all of my part-time jobs and I had a real, full-time job waiting on me to get back from vacation ... a full-time, well paying position in one of the largest banks in the state in the Information Systems department.  I was going to be a computer tech and like so many other things in my life that job had just landed in my lap at the last second.

I felt sad then, even more sad than I had in the last 24 hours.  I felt sad because everyone I knew was either leaving me or had already left.  My life was resetting itself.  Increment the counter back to zero.  I was alone, again, just like I'd always been ... well, I had Flynn which I guess is how I had started this whole adventure six years ago.

Six long years.

Six years ago, that early September Saturday morning.  I had just started my senior year in high school at Petal.  I had been changing the oil and filter in my black and gold '79 Pontiac "Bandit" Trans-Am there in the driveway of my parents' house and Flynn had pulled up in his beat up old '70 Pontiac GTO.  You see, Flynn and my parents had the same street address, they just lived on different streets and my Ames Performance Engineering (APE) Pontiac Firebird catalog had found its way into Flynn's mailbox by mistake ... or had it been some kind of cosmic fate?

That was the day that Flynn and I had met.  Everyone else had come after and now everyone else was leaving or already gone.  Anyway, it was just Flynn and me, again.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Just like it had always been before.

Flynn took a last pull on his cigarette and flicked it out into the grass beyond the sidewalk.  He took another swig of whiskey from his flask and put the flask back in his vest pocket.

"Kind of hungry.  Want to get something to eat?" Flynn asked.

Yeah.

Yeah I did.

"IHOP?" I asked, already knowing where Flynn wanted to go.

Flynn pushed himself up and off the window ledge, stretching.

"I reckon." he said, taking the lead and walking towards the parking lot where my Vette was parked.

I guess I was driving.

I took one last look at the apartment complex around me ... so many memories.  I took one last look at Cody's apartment, said a silent goodbye to a place that had only recently taken on the aspects of a shrine and then stepped on after Flynn, my keys in my hand.

Just like old times.

Flynn and Shields.

Let the good times roll.


Later that day I wound up at McAllister's Deli with my other friends, the intellectual bunch; Bill, Mel, Eric ... I remember that we spent a long time sitting there eating triple chocolate spoon cake and drinking sweet tea and going over our own memories, shared and personal, of our college years.  I remember Bill claiming that he could outdrink me in sweet tea and me accepting the challenge.  McAllister's had these huge 44 ounce cups that they served tea in and with free refills the gauntlet had been thrown down.  I made it through two cups of sweet tea, syrupy sweet tea ... got a refill and started on my third cup.  Bill made it about a quarter of the way through his second cup, got a look of distress on his face, excused himself and made for the bathroom.  A few minutes later he reappeared looking paler and disheveled.  Apparently there is such a thing as projectile tea-vomit and he had just experienced it.  He conceded defeat to me and we all broke apart to go our separate ways.  Bill and Mel already had jobs at Magnolia Federal Bank and I'd soon be joining them.

Eric was working at a software company in Meridian about a hundred plus miles away.

Things hadn't turned out that bad after all.

I had a college degree, I'd said my goodbyes and I still had a few friends left, friends that I'd only grow closer to in the next few years to come.  We said our (temporary) goodbyes, my friends wishing me well on my vacation.

I went home, tired ... no, exhausted ... and I hit my bed and fell asleep about 3pm in the afternoon.  I had nothing else to do.  No part-time job to go to, no girlfriend to be with ... right then I just wanted to sleep, to feel like I had accomplished something and to just rest after a very long, long journey through the walls and halls of academia.  I closed my eyes and I melted into my bed, slowly sinking into it like it was made out of warm gelatin.

I didn't dream at all.

I woke up five hours later with the worst headache I had ever had in my life, a real splitting headache and all I could think of was it was the product of drinking over 100 ounces of syrupy sweet tea in less than 30 minutes.  I suffered that night with what amounted to a tea hangover ... the first and only one I've ever had.  I was miserable and even several aspirin didn't seem to take the sharp edge off of my headache.  I thought that I might have to go to the emergency room the pain got so bad but about the time that I got up and ready to drive myself to Forrest General the pain started to subside.

I read a book for a while then got a shower and went to bed for the night.  It was a little after 9pm.

Sunday, August 9, 1992

The next day I helped my 70 year old grandmother fall gracefully into the passenger seat of my '88 Chevrolet Z-51 Corvette and together we headed out a day early for her brother's house in Chattanooga, TN.  She was a delight to travel with, telling me stories of her youth and her brothers and sisters.  My grandmother was a short woman and her head barely rose up above the dash / side of the passenger door but she kept me entertained as the miles between Hattiesburg and Chattanooga rolled by.

We stopped off for lunch at the Galleria Mall in Birmingham, Chick-Fil-A, and I remember seeing the massive water fountain rising and falling.  In the Winter, the fountain would be replaced with an old style merry-go-round.  We did some window shopping and then got back into my Vette and headed on down the road.

Late that afternoon we drove into the driveway of her brother's house and I helped her unpack.  My parents and my sister would be up late tomorrow so I had about a day and a half to kill.  That night, watching the sun go down over Missionary Ridge, I lay in a hammock in the back yard, keyed up my Sony Walkman and just relaxed.  I think I fell asleep and it was some of the best sleep that I'd had in a while.  My great uncle woke me and told me that they were going out to get something to eat.  I didn't do cafeterias so I told them I'd just get something on my own and maybe catch a movie later.

I ate at Pizza Hut by myself, in a mall there in Chattanooga and then went to see Clint Eastwood's new western "Unforgiven" at the theater across the highway.  I got back to my great uncle's house somewhere after 10 that night and fell asleep on the guest bed which was a folding couch that they had made up for me before going to bed.  I turned out the light and lay there in the dark ... thinking.

Just thinking.

What a long strange trip it had been, I thought as I lay there listening to my Walkman.  I listened to Chilliwack and Boston.  "My Girl", "Whatcha gonna do", "More than a feeling" and "Don't look back" were the four songs that I kept playing over and over again on my Walkman.  The batteries finally gave out, the tape slowed to a stop and I made a mental note to pick up some AA batteries in the morning.  I put my Walkman away but I could still hear the music in my head.

Again I felt a tinge of sadness because I thought that my journey, the long trail of my youth, had finally come to its anticipated but not expected end.  Little did I know that the journey was just starting.

The pillow smelled of Springtime, the sheets were fresh and I fell asleep to strange dreams about an uncertain future, about adventures yet to be had ... dreams that were punctuated by the sounds of late night traffic passing on the road in front of the house and the air conditioning cycling on and off periodically.