I swing both ways

Travel along the twisting blue highways of Eastern Kentucky enough and you’re bound to see them: picturesque and practical, old-fashioned and mildly terrifying. They’re a sight that’s out of the ordinary enough to make a traveler pause and take a few photographs along the side of the road.

They’re known as swinging bridges, and most of them were built by the people who use them, out of necessity, to reach their homes. As you probably can guess, there isn’t a lot of flat land available in the mountains to build a house, or even to park a mobile home. And with flat land being in short supply, sometimes it winds up on the other side of the creek from the road.

And so they built them, these swinging bridges, out of wood and concrete, and sturdy-looking cable. Built them of their own design, in locations of their own choosing, and often with the help of neighbors.

The one appears along Highway 7, outside of Hazard, in the neighborhood of Cornettsville and Ulvah, along the road to Whitesburg.

It’s a little unusual, I think, in that it has a name.

I didn’t realize it last week, but I’d seen this bridge before; more than 10 years ago, in fact, when swinging bridges were the subject of a story in the second season of Kentucky Life, a long-running magazine program for which I was series writer (and sometime segment producer).

At the time the host was Byron Crawford, who spent his career roaming Kentucky’s back roads in search of stories just like this for the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. If you watch the clip, you’ll notice the boyish enthusiasm Byron exhibits for bouncing across the bridge, imagining what it might be like to be a child whose little world includes such a marvelous thing.

As we drank in the mountain beauty surrounding the bridge, snapping photos and recording a little video for a short segment and story we were working on that day, we were greeted by a resident of the small neighborhood which relied on the bridge daily to cross the creek.

Impervious to the sway and creak of the Ben Salley Bridge, the man made his brisk way across the creek, through the gate, and down to the roadside where I stood.

“That’s my bridge,” he said, pointing to the sign.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Salley,” said I.

I was a bit worried he was going to run us off but he mostly just wanted to know what we were up to, and to chat a bit. He told us he’d built that bridge, and he wished the county would put up a more permanent structure and right of way. He was a war veteran, World War II,  and thought he deserved it. I think he’s right.

He also told me that his wife had died of cancer, and they carried her for the last time across that bridge on a scooter much like the one he himself now used. He didn’t say if her final journey across the Ben Salley Bridge was before she departed this life, or after. Either case would have been difficult, I would think.

The late September sun was hot on the green water. Fall has only just begun to touch the mountains, but soon they’ll be ablaze with color — so much color that you’ll think you’re in another world, where the beauty just takes your breath away.

It is another world, Eastern Kentucky, where some of the things that city-dwellers take for granted, like Starbucks, are unknown, and other things, like swinging foot bridges, slow you down just long enough to pass the time of day with a war veteran or a new-found friend.

Need a comedian? Call a Catholic

Growing up, being Catholic was just as big a part of my life as it is today. I went to St. John the Evangelist Catholic School — for only three years, until it closed — but for those three years, baby, I went to Mass every single day.

An early childhood spent dreaming of saints, breathing incense, and contemplating stigmata is a powerful force indeed. Tell me, did YOU have to learn how to spell “excommunication” on any of your third-grade spelling tests?

(Well, I didn’t either; it was “Communion.” But still.)

Couple that with some of the habits of my parents, who were just as Catholic-soaked as their offspring— literally as it turns out — and you’ve got someone like me, who has a glow-in-the-dark Blessed Virgin next to her kitchen sink which I actually treasure dearly.

My mother is a sensible woman if ever there was one, and practical as the day is long. She can also be very funny. One of the fondest memories of my childhood is of Mom putting together the salad for the nightly meal, rinsing the various vegetables at the sink.

A random child wanders by — say, me. Mom picks up the celery.

“I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!” she cackles, spraying everyone in the vicinity with water from her dripping leafy stalk of celery.

If you’re not Catholic (or perhaps Episcopalian or Lutheran, who retain many of these same customs) you may be unaware that priests frequently bless the congregation with Holy Water, using either a special rod-like thing (called an aspergillum) that he plunges down into a vessel borne by an altar boy, or a palm frond. If you’re in the line of fire (or water, in this case) when he’s just gone back for a fresh load, you can get very wet indeed. It’s sort of the ecclesiastical version of riding the water ride at a theme park.

Exhibit B — my father. Dad didn’t just attend Catholic school; no, he went to an actual Catholic seminary (where priests are educated) for high school and one year of college. It was a boarding school and it was the 1950s. You may not be surprised to learn that all the boys were required to wear cassocks, the long black garments which priests today wear beneath their vestments and, depending on the church, so do the altar servers. His chief recollection of having to flap around in these things was that the slits in the sides, provided so that the boys had access to their pants pockets, frequently got caught up on the end of the staircase rails as the rowdy boys whirled around the banisters, late for class.

He also recalled that they were prohibited from smoking cigarettes, which is why all the boys took up pipe smoking. 1950s, remember.

At any rate, in addition to learning an awful lot of Latin, Dad also absorbed fully many of the traditions and practices of the Church. You might even say that he was infused with them. The second most-vivid comedy-gold Catholic memory of my childhood is the sight of my inventive father, swinging a thurible of his own invention and manufacture in order to hasten the heat and subsequent usability of charcoal briquettes prior to a backyard barbecue.

What’s a thurible? See right. It’s used at Mass, or on other occasions when the Church wishes to use fragrant smoke to symbolize our prayers rising to heaven, purifying what it touches. It’s pretty potent, and the chronically allergic wisely avoid those Masses which promise to be heavily clouded in incense.

But back to Dad. You know how it is. You light the charcoal and wait 1.5 geologic ages until it’s burned down to the white-hot coals which will adequately cook your burgers and dogs. So the old altar boy came up with this method to speed the Baker barbecues. Swing-swing went the Bakerified thurible, hastening the burning process of the briquettes. I suppose I was a little embarrassed by it; I mean, no other dads were swinging incense burners during other kids’ cookouts. But hey — we got to eat sooner. Thank you, Catholic Church!

Most Catholic kids, at one time or another, have played Mass. There’s a lot of drama, after all, with ringing bells and ornate platters, chalices and whatnot. (It is, in fact, the earliest form of drama.) The big moment for the kids, though, is the distribution of Communion, though always a bummer for us girls, who were forever relegated to being receivers only since only the boys could play priest.

OK, so most Catholic kids reenact the Mass. My mom, however, would reenact stigmata.

You may know about stigmata; it’s something many saints have exhibited: the bleeding from the hands, feet, and side at the sites of the wounds of Christ. It’s a big deal, saint-wise. But I’ll never forget the occasions on which my mom accidentally stabbed herself in the palm — like the time she thrust her hand right into a stick concealed in the pile of leaves she was raking — and she’d clutch her hand saying, “stigmata! stigmata!” I’d always run into the house for a stalk of celery to help her out.

When my husband, Tras (who was not raised Catholic), entered my life, he one day innocently asked me just where we Catholics procured all the implements of our faith: crucifixes for the wall, statues for the dresser, holy cards for all occasions. When I told him about Catholic bookstores, he immediately dubbed them the “Catholic PX” and never fails to remark on it when I need to run down there and pick up a gift for someone’s Confirmation or First Communion. Do I need further evidence that he’s the one for me? That kind of humor doesn’t generally grow on non-Catholic trees.

Today I was reading Pioneer Woman‘s blog, and see a post from her friend Hyacinth, who details a recent redecoration of a stairwell nook. A Catholic, she used items that were important to her, specifically crucifixes, icons, and other — in her words — “Jesus doodads.” Ah, another kindred spirit.

I might have to run down to the PX and pick me up another couple glow-in-the dark Marys … just to be sure.

I burn for you

For every couple, there is a story. Ask your parents, your grandparents, your co-workers, your friends. Whether they’re newly married, long wed, dating around or wistfully remembering relationships of the past, I’ll bet there’s an abundance of good stories about How We Met.

In the case of my parents, we’re back to McDonald’s.

Golden arches!

The time: the late 1950s. The place: Hike’s Point, Louisville, Ky. The cast of characters: my father, the French Fry Boy; my Uncle Bruce, future McDonald’s baron of Northern Kentucky, and my mother, She Who Would be Fixed Up.

Back then, as now, mostly, the house that Kroc built was staffed by young people; in those halcyon days, though, the staff was exclusively teenage boys. You’ve seen the photos, probably; crew-cuts topped by paper hats. Think Goldie Wilson, aspiring mayor, from Back to the Future.

I grew up listening to stories about this old-timey french-fryer my father manned; here no fancy newfangled timer was available to dear old Dad. No, he stationed himself there at this antiquated beast, all senses keenly attuned to the condition of the spuds bathing dangerously in animal fat. Poised and ready to — the moment they reached golden perfection —  snatch them from their tallowized inferno, shake, rattle ‘n’ roll them, ultimately flinging them into the drainer where they would acquire the exact level of salty goodness required to create The Perfect Fry.

Just what Uncle Bruce saw in this man, this teenage potato czar, that made him think my dad would be a good match for his sister, I suppose I’ll never know. Was it the dedication he brought to his fryer, the patience he mustered to turn out the crispy goldens on the basis of his skill and knowledge alone? Was it the fact that he was Catholic, attending Bellarmine College and a serious young man — a perfect match for his bookish and bespeckled sister?

Perhaps one day I’ll grill Mom about it. Grill. Ha!

At any rate, I love to think back on the innocence of the time period, the poodle skirts my mother wore, the appalling shortness of my dad’s crew cut. As I grew older, so McDonald’s grew in popularity and at some point, became firmly entrenched in the American psyche. How lovely it was to know that it was the McDonald’s French fry, that most tasty and desired of treats, that brought my parents together — and me into the world.

What brought my husband, Tras, and I together was a bit more complex, nuanced and sprinkled with, instead of salt, humor and pathos. Not unlike many steam-soaked tales of Southern decadence, or maybe accounts of Southern politics a la All the King’s Men (what is it with me and Robert Penn Warren lately?) our joining can be traced back to the Kentucky State Capitol, election night and live television.

I work at a public television station, and until a couple of years ago, I was a writer and associate producer in our production division. These days I toil in the marketing vineyard, squeezing the juice from our agency and fermenting it, as it were, for the masses.

But then, as was the case for most everyone in Production, Election Night found us in one of a number of locations around the state, up to and including the Capitol itself.

It’s an unlikely setting for the birth of a romance and frankly it took another several years for the two of us to even know that’s where it all began. Because it began not with doe-eyes across the tabulated election returns, but with some coolness and insults and a touch of embarrassment — it’s a story worth telling, considering how low-key and in sync we are with one another today, nearly six years hence.

It’s a story I’ll have to tell you one day. Tomorrow good for you?

There’s really nothing like a good love story. Pioneer Woman wrote one — and it took her 40 chapters and nearly a year to complete. I promise you, this won’t take nearly as long.

Monsters lead such interesting lives

Sometimes, I still have the dream. You know the one; it’s universal, ubiquitous and unerring in its ability to strike terror into our hearts — even at these great distances of time, geographic location and experience. And although the details vary from person to person, the overall theme is the same: unrelenting terror. For many people it involves underwear, which is the case for me. Standing in front of the class, expected to give an oral report and there you are with your tightie-whities or Monday-Tuesdays visible for all the world to see.

How frequently people mentioning having this dream  is, I think, a clear indication of how very much with us our childhoods always are. During the sunny light of day, our memories and daydreams are of childhood’s carefree existence. No worries. No bills. No drama, no money woes. Very little demands upon your time, apart from an occasional chore or two. Time to dream. All sweetness, peace and light.

More lately, though, instead of  standing stricken before Sister Mary Roberta, the St. John’s third graders, God and everybody, I dream that I am in college. It’s not the usual Final Exam and I Haven’t Gone to a Single Class! type of horror. Instead, mine centers on the terror that is furnishing a dorm room. How is this sectional sofa going to fit in here, for God’s sake? Where am I going to put this king-size sleigh bed? How do you expect me to cook for five people without an oven? It probably says a lot about me that I have this particular fear, but then again I’m also someone who occasionally dreams about vacuuming, or packing a suitcase.

But the point is, our memories surround us, shape us, make us who we are. Occasionally a scene or situation from my childhood will pop up on its own, surprise me, and send me wool-gathering down memory lane. It’s a nice trip.

I grew up in a small Kentucky town; just 2,500 people in Carrollton and what, three times that many in the whole of Carroll County. For us all I think, the places of our childhood are the center of the world — and while I certainly knew about and visited larger cities, they were relegated the periphery. Everything that happened surrounded 315 Ninth Street. It was my world, and that world, truth be told, it was defined, circumscribed and delineated by sidewalks.

Sidewalks. What a thing to catch hold of me, but surprise me a sidewalk did, one afternoon not long ago, as I meandered down the street in my old neighborhood, the house-before-last in which I lived. I’m now in a newer subdivision, but my old neighborhood was more mature, more idiosyncratic. The sidewalks there, like those of my youth, are a patchwork collection of old and gray, new and white, lifted and bumped with tree roots. Sidewalks with character.

Up and down sidewalks such as these we ran, with bare feet, flying to a friend’s house, or walked, poking along on a summer’s day with nothing to do and all day to do it. Three houses down, the sidewalk in front of the Day’s house wasn’t lined off with horizontal lines every three feet or so, like God intended sidewalks, but instead doodled fancifully, like children’s scribble drawings that are then colored in. Interestingly, I never asked, or wondered, really why that patch of sidewalk was different. It just how things were.

So walking along, a few years back, I caught sight of a patch of sidewalk that was fairly unremarkable. In fact, I can’t even say what it looked like, physically, that caused me to return in my memory, barefoot and age 8, on a Ninth Street sidewalk. But return I did, and I could smell the chalk of our hopscotch games, feel the sting of a stubbed toe. It set me to ruminating on how much of my life, back then, was spent walking, squatting, sitting, dreaming on those concrete pathways that adults laid down for ease of walking. But for the young, it was where we lived.

Today, such a visit, even in memory, is a pretty alien experience. It’s like a visit to another country, the country of childhood. Where paintings on your dad’s office wall are scrutinized. Well, I guess I do that still.

Yes, the world of sidewalks is an alien country, these days. But it’s nice to visit it, once in a while, in memory. Quite often, I’ll take a trip there too, as I watch my three little monsters jumping on the trampoline, riding bikes, laying on their backs and dreaming.

It’s a fun place to visit, but, you know — I don’t think it’s a place I could stay. I have enough trouble figuring out where to put the furniture as it is.