Remembering My Friend Don
My friend, Don, who led me on a trip through space and time, died this week. The space was Hog Jaw Valley, Alabama, and the time was his boyhood.
I met Don at Harry and Ollie’s, a little gift shop and café that my wife opened in 2011, and in which I worked after I retired. My primary responsibility was to open for breakfast. For a year or more, Don would come in for breakfast several days a week. He always got coffee, two eggs over easy, bacon or sausage, and biscuits and gravy. Bacon or sausage was the big decision.
Too often, business was slow, so I would get a cup of coffee and sit with Don. We talked about many things; the Army and Korea, mules, tractors, photography, aviation, and frequently about Hog Jaw Valley. Don had been in the Army, on the front lines, during the Korean War, and he had many stories of events and people that passed through his life then. He also spent many years as an over-the-road tractor-trailer driver, and that experience added many more stories.
We also shared an interest in photography. On several occasions Don brought in his small digital camera to show me photos. One set was taken following a snow, and he had many fine snow photos. One day he came, as excited as Don ever got, wanting to show me the photos of butterflies he had taken.
But it was Hog Jaw Valley that forged the bond of real friendship. At first it was listening to his stories about his life, the people, and the places in the valley. One morning Don brought in a book he had—a History of Hog Jaw Valley, and he left it with me to read. Leafing through the pages, I already recognized family names and places from listening to him. Finally, we went on a driving tours of the area. Those trips are chronicled in two posts, A Trip Back to Hog Jaw Valley, Part 1 and Part 2.
We also visited Bridgeport, Alabama’s Battery Hill and the railroad museum, Russell Cave National Monument, and Hales Bar, location of the poorly sited first Lake Nickajack dam.
For me, time spent with Don was a very happy time. I enjoyed all of his stories, and he listened to mine. He could laugh at most anything. On our first trip to Haw Jaw Valley, we first stopped at Nickajack Dam. The gates onto the dam were open, there were no signs visible, so we just walked out on the dam and watched a vessel go through the locks. After a few minutes a very polite employee came out and advised us the dam was off limits. We pointed out the open gate and that there were no visible signs. He did not seem perturbed, and we chatted for another fifteen minutes as we gradually moved toward the gate. “The sign” was on the gate and was not visible because the gate was open. Don got a kick out of the fact that we had gotten “thrown off” the dam. Well, we were politely escorted off.
Later in the day, we found the railroad drawbridge over Long Island Creek, the main channel for larger vessels traveling the Tennessee River in that area. Don must have had six or seven different stories about events and people associated with the old pivoting drawbridge that had been replaced with the current vertical lift drawbridge.
Don related that when he was a young teenager, the drawbridge operator would let him sit on the drawbridge when it was being opened, and Don would ride on one end or the other as it turned parallel to the boat channel high above the creek. Can’t imagine getting by with something like that today!
I climbed a long set of steps to get up to the tracks, intent on taking some photos. The drawbridge operator in the control cab high atop the bridge superstructure saw me and promptly ordered me off the tracks. I complied, but got my photos first. Again, Don was chuckling. “Well that makes two places we have been thrown out of today.” For the next year, a common greeting from Don was, “Thrown out of anywhere lately?”
Our exploration of Hog Jaw Valley and the surrounding areas often took us back in deep woods along unpaved roads. Don would point out what he remembered, such as how a path or dirt road led over this mountain out of the valley. In one instance, he assured me there had been a prison up in the mountains. We looked but we never did find it.
One morning when Don stopped in for breakfast, he was pulling a horse trailer behind his truck. He said he had brought his “pony” for me to see. My wife heard “pony” and wanted to see the horse. The “pony” was a Massey-Harris tractor, the model called a “Pony.” Peggy walked back in the store mumbling about how she thought he meant a real pony. Don gave me a sideways look, clearly amused at his little joke.
The Massey Harris Pony, though was no joke. He had restored it to what looked like nearly new—new paint and details right down to the decals on the engine cover. He was rightfully proud of that little tractor. One morning , Don drove the little tractor the four or five miles to the store for breakfast.
Most recently, about two weeks ago, he pulled up in our driveway driving a two-seat, sport recreational vehicle with a big smile on his face. He took me for a ride, claiming the vehicle could do 60 mph. He clearly enjoyed his new toy.
We talked as we rode through the freshly cut hay fields and we made tentative plans for our next trip to Hog Jaw Valley. Don was convinced there were areas we had missed.
And then, a few days later, he died.
I am, however, confident that he will not get “thrown out” of his next destination. He was one of the good guys.