7/4/14 Awake at Smith Lake

There’s much worse places to be awake at.

We spent two days getting ready for our three-hour trip. The whole family would be venturing to Smith Lake in Jasper, Alabama, to spend the July 4 weekend at the lake house of my life long friends, David and Pat Curtis. David and me share a special bond: we have been friends for 47 years, which is close enough that we can say we have been friends for nearly half-a-century. I am not only friends with David, but I had the supreme good fortune to know and love his father, the late Ken Curtis, who was a powerful influence in my life and the lives of many young men who now have aspirations to be an influence in the lives of our own children and grandchildren, and the lives of other young people who may lack the influences we were so fortunate to have. I know and love Miss Dot, David’s sisters Diane and Renee, his remarkably funny and cool brother-in-law, Rocky, his children, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, and even was privileged to know his grandparents from Brooksville, Mississippi. How fortunate are we when we grow up accepted as a welcome part of someone else’s extended family. I was that lucky one.

David and I even served as each others best man at our weddings. We both wisely chose our spouses and are thankful for the gracious bounty with which we have been blessed. Our cups runneth over.

So here I sit on the back deck of the lake house, in the wee early hours of July 4, which is my birthday, spending it with friends and family that are so important to me, as a guest of extremely gracious hosts. If there is anything better than this, someone will have to explain it carefully to me so that I can grasp it, but I doubt they’ll have much success. I’m pretty sure of what I think about this.

Two days ago we started getting ready, or, perhaps more correctly, Debbie started getting ready. She had plans to prepare some of her special dishes to bring for us all to enjoy. My job was to spend the night-before-last smoking two Boston butts with charcoal and real hickory, which I do extremely well, and were you here you’d most likely concur. Pat and David are no strangers to culinary creations, so for the next few days, we will eat well, enjoy excursions on David’s Hacker Motor Launch, which is about the coolest and most finely crafted mahogany motor boat you will ever see, enjoy watching our children get to know each other better, and witness our grandchildren in the process of becoming friends. The pattern will continue, as we progress from David’s Grandfather through generations of progeny to his grandfather’s great-great grandchildren. This is an amazing aspect of Mississippi life (even though we are currently in Alabama), in that friendships extend across generations. Of course this happens elsewhere, but modern mobile society frequently gives us only the stingiest connection to place and tribe. If I am not an adopted member of the Curtis Tribe, then certainly, by acclimated treaty, the two tribes have been merged; but in reality, the Curtis tribe adopted me into it in 1967. Do you realize how fortunate this makes me?

It took two days to pack stuff for a four day trip. Maybe it’ll take us that long to re-pack then unpack when we get home. It’s a lot of schlepping, but a considerable portion of our lives is spent schlepping things from one place to another. If we are not careful, schleppage will consume all our time. I have so much paraphernalia to schlepp about: clothes, camera and gear, a musical instrument or two, my CPAP machine, my computer, my other electronic gear, ice chests, food, beverages, children…there is no end.

As soon as you get both vehicles packed, yes, both of them since there is no way to get all of us and our stuff here in a single one, and you head out the driveway, at least twice you make sudden turn-arounds back to the house to get forgotten things you cannot live without. I left my sunglasses which we had to go back and get, then Piper realized she left her phone, which we had to go back and get. Each trip back, all three dogs were lined up in front of the carport as if to be asking, “Are you forgetting us? Who is going to feed us while you are gone?”

The dogs know when we are leaving on a trip. They are usually independent enough that you can go all day without seeing one, and in the case of Ruby you might go a week without actually seeing her, merely stepping in the evidence of her presence in the immediate environs. But this morning, all three dogs were constantly underfoot as we loaded up stuff in the car. Babalu hung about so closely underfoot that I bumped him in the snout with my guitar case, which is not a gig bag but a very hard and heavy flight case. He yelped and scrambled to make an exit, running over Ruby and Relay as he did so. But Ruby and Relay would not retreat…they too took a bump from the guitar case. There were yelps and sore muzzles all about as I refused to slow down or divert my path for dogs who were watching but not smart enough to get out of my way.

“Get back!!” I snarled in my best dog voice, which should be admirable to any observer and dog lover, as it is the voice I use when I am claiming alpha status over the dog three-pack. It worked, but only for about a minute. When I came back outside, there they were again, casting a furtive glance when they thought I was not looking, but constant wistful glances at the open hatch on the Tahoe. Were I not careful, I’d have a stowaway or two.

“Do you want me to feed your dogs for you while you’re gone?” my step-father, Ike, asked me.

“Yessir,” I said. “Feed them in the mornings and that will be good enough.”

“Don’t you want me to come back and feed them in the evenings, too?” he asked.”

“No, sir. Once a day will be enough. That’s all I feed them, anyway.”

“What if they get hungry in the evenings?” he asked.

“They can use their excellent predatory skills they are always bragging to me about and harvest themselves a big fat rabbit.”

The dogs all looked at each other in jubilation at this announcement.

“Rabbit season,” Ruby said, her eyes narrowing and ears back as she thought of the hunt.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Relay and Babulu said to each other, tails a-wag, as they immediately abandoned the carport and our way and began sniffing all over the yard and environs of the lodge to let their noses determine where their rabbit hunt might begin. They lost all interest in us after that, being completely consumed with the one thing that dogs do best…which is behave like dogs. They are completely satisfied with this arrangement, having no desire to be humans whose ways seem senseless to them, we who have no predatory skills, well, no predatory skills except for me, for they know I am a dangerous predator, having personally observed their observations of the coyotes and feral hogs I brought back for their inspection, and even enjoyed a bit of fresh liverwurst I furnished. I like the looks of adoration I get from my dog’s as apex predator/pack leader when I do that. They like it, too. It’s one reason why I am considered the apex, alpha predator in their own territory, but not the only reason…for I simply am alpha to them. They know it and accept it, and seem to get on successfully with their lives. It would be great if humans could learn something from dogs and their pack behavior, for they will fight for the things that are truly important, like food, shelter, and mates, and pretty much take everything else in stride, turning up their excellently functioning noses as mere petty squabbles that are beneath their dignity. Once a dog learns his place in the pack, he is generally content there, no matter what position it is; and if his contentment is not so apparent he is free to challenge the status quo at any time, sometimes hourly, and improve his lot or worsen it as the case may be, for worsening it is an ever present danger unless he already occupies the bottom spot…but he manages to fit himself in some spot he can claim for his own. Everyone needs a spot of their own, but everyone cannot be the pack leader, nor the executive assistant. Humans could take some pointers from this but most humans lack something that dogs understand without thinking about it too much. Of course, if I were a dog, I’d likely think twice about chasing a car, the dangers it involves, and what I might do with one if I actually caught it; but then again, maybe I wouldn’t think about it, and just chase it with reckless abandon, snapping at its tires until my snoot got too close to the tire’s leading edge, upon which occurrence my dog philosophizing days might come to an abrupt end. Such is the danger of action without wisdom and philosophies that never contemplate the conclusion of a matter.

Yesterday’s boat ride to the marina was Maggie’s first time in a boat of any description. With her head poked out atop her life jacket, she was wearing a big smile, enjoying every second of this new adventure. I was enjoying it with her, serving as a very capable first mate to Captain David. Even guests and boat crew members are wise to know their place in the pack.

So here I sit at 3:50AM, having begun writing this at about 2:30, listening to some dogs across the lake settling their own pack hierarchy issues, hearing the yelps and whines of the dog that had its low place reasserted, or of the dog that was recently demoted. If you ask me, it sounded more like a demotion. Oh, well, it was what it was. I can’t see the dogs from here, but just as soon as a nearby hoot owl cranked up his, “Ka-hoo, ka-hoo, ka-whoo-ahh,” the dogs began to bark and bay in harmony, the unity of the pack restored by the owl’s lonesome call, the dogs swearing by all that was holy to them, “You’d better keep your hoot owl ass over on the same side of the lake as that guy up extremely early typing at his computer.” The owl must have heard this and the dogs must have sensed the owl’s acquiescence, for now, all I hear across the night-waters of the lake is cicadas, tree frogs, and a late-night mockingbird, which tells me that the owl has left the area after a successful dinner, or a successful rendezvous with Mrs. Owl. Were the owl still about, I doubt the mockingbird would sing nearly so loud, announcing his presence to an unsympathetic raptor, the lord of the night skies. The dogs don’t seem to care one whit about the mockingbird, but I am enjoying his night music.

I have rambled and danced about, flinging words like doubloons at a mardi gras parade, and with just about as much value though far less effect. I enjoyed everyone of them, though, and more particularly, I enjoyed the venue and circumstances from which they have been written, seated on this deck, looking at still, deep, black night-waters of this beautiful place, standing guard for people I love all sleeping peacefully in the night, except for those disturbed by the large rat that keeps going in and out fetching another cup of coffee.

Perhaps David’s dog, a beautiful Black Lab named Ricky, should wake up and express his own predator mode at the large, noisy rat rattling around in the kitchen. But Ricky, too, is asleep at the foot of his master, no doubt dreaming of ducks and frosty water. I am the only one up, now. Well not quite. There’s also the mockingbird, who has no doubt noticed me and singing just for me.

“Happy Birthday,” the mockingbird sings, then adds, “I got to sleep now.”

And then it’s just me.

One more thing. David says that the Lake’s Marine Police are less than helpful or friendly here. Being an Ole Miss Alumnus, I asked David, “Have you ever thought about hoisting a Crimson Tide flag as they approach your boat?”

He looked at his Ole Miss Flag. He scratched his chin. “Now that’s a good idea!”

One of the greatest gifts any leader has is the ability to know a good idea when he hears one. I expect it will be difficult at first, but David will no doubt get him an Alabama flag. Even boat captains have to learn their place in the pack, and on Smith Lake in Jasper, Alabama, about 50 miles from Tuscaloosa, I doubt an Ole Miss flag would be of much external use.

The mockingbird must agree. He started singing again as soon as I wrote that. One can look about and find confirmation easy enough if one is doing something. It’s the seeking of confirmation prior to doing anything that is difficult to get, for…how can anyone confirm something you aren’t doing?

Think about that while I let the mockingbird sing me to sleep right here on this deck, on this beautiful lake, in this lovely place, surrounded by loving friends and family.

Tell me, if you can: just what is it that I lack?

It’s now 4:50AM. The first hint of light is cracking in the east. The mockingbird is now singing his daylight song. He has entertained me nearly all night with the exception of his short nap earlier. And me? I have written the night away without so much as saying a thing. But a ramble is good on a long night in a beautiful place..

Happy Birthday, America. Happy birthday, me.

©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp

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