nevereatenmcdonalds

a British military family's move to Georgia, USA

You can’t take it with you…

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It has been too long since my last blog post.

This is not for lack of wonderful experiences but for two enemies of blog-posting: time and pollen.

This, my fifth and final spring in Georgia, has seen my resistance to microscopic plant gametes broken like a wild colt. The sneezing, fogged eyes and dripping nose are nothing compared to the headaches that linger for days…

Pollen glistens on tarmac like a dusting of frost, drifts by the roadside like snow, and smothers local ponds like a green oil spill.

Reader, I hate pollen.

Time-wise, we are now entering the last month of our posting and Mr J took his final flight this week. Our family were given permission to meet him off his plane, which has the same security protection as Air Force One! We will miss these rare privileges. As per tradition, Mr J is doused with coolers of ice-cold water as he steps onto the apron. This only serves to remind us that this April feels colder than any other we’ve known.

While Mr J winds down at work, the bureaucracy of moving hits me in waves. My mind is overwhelmed by the logistics of relocating continent once again. I regularly misplace my house keys, my phone, my to-do lists. Sometimes I feel like I have misplaced my sanity.

Breathe.

No, no don’t breathe the pollen!

Moving brings out my true colours – yes, I am a horrible perfectionist. I need to photograph every book plate signed by the author. I need to recycle everything recyclable. I need to donate everything that can be donated – books to The Friends of The Libraries, toiletries to the women’s shelter, this to Goodwill, that to Habitat for Humanity, uniforms to school for re-sale… We will miss the van-like nature of our beloved Chevi Suburban.

We have to sell our beloved Chevi Suburban, of course.

Winding down our posting is emotional. We will miss our friends, great school, the beautiful weather and wide open roads. Letting go of my children’s outgrown clothes and toys forces me to reflect on just how much they have grown up since the summer of 2013. I can only hold on to those memories. I cannot hold onto the much-loved sweater, dress and t-shirt…

… Or the contents of our children’s nature table:pair_1 copy

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For me, our return home takes on an almost spiritual dimension; the passing from one life to another. I grasp that there is never enough time to all that you want to do, that you have to find contentment amongst the disappointment, that happiness is a choice, and that friendships endure no matter where wind blows you…

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Preachers, spies and spacemen

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On Tuesday 6th February we wake up on the west coast of Florida and decide to witness the Falcon Heavy launch on the east coast. It is worth the drive!

With little more than 100 days left of our posting to America’s Deep South we embark on a flurry of adventures… with unexpected serendipity.

 

The Sunday following Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday we take our children to Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District, birthplace – and resting place – of Dr. King.

The 11:30am service at Ebenezer Baptist Church is our first taste of African-American worship. I wear a special outfit for the occasion – a gift from another military spouse who is downsizing to an idyllic-sounding retirement in Florida. Rita bought the tartan ensemble (below) in the mid 1970s when her husband, Mike, was stationed with the American Infantry in Berlin…

Tartan

Perfect for a sunny January day!

If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”

These are the familiar words of Ebenezer Baptist Church’s guest speaker, the charismatic activist, minister, and two-time presidential candidate nominee, Reverend Jessie Jackson.

Mr J and I are bowled over.

Jackson was with Martin Luther King on the day he was fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee. When asked how he got to work so closely to the civil rights leader, Jackson’s answer is simple: his salary was $33:50, and he had a good chance of being thrown into jail! Essentially, he concludes with mirth, there was not a lot of competition for his job with the SCLC!

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Jessie Jackson takes the pulpit the Sunday after Marin Luther King’s birthday.

Unlike Mr J, I have actually heard Jessie Jackson speak before – at a Stop The War rally in Hyde Park, London in 2003. As a military spouse, I make no apology for my peace-loving nature…

The Reverend is older now of course, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease last year; this does not stop him, however, from a brief shimmying dance during a musical interlude.

Slavery is not a much-talked in the Deep South, but Jessie Jackson does not shy from the topic. He states that the only thing worse than slavery is to “adjust” [to the status quo]. The congregation is invited to stand if they have a loved one in jail. A number stand up. Then Jackson invites the congregation to stand if they have experience of foreclosure (on a home), or have student debts… (I writhe guiltily in my pew; in my day higher education in the UK was free.) Many, many more stand up. Jackson cleverly illustrates to his congregation their modern-day shackles.

It is hard to recall everything that the Rev. Jessie Jackson touches upon, but faith and politics are intertwined: voting is a moral duty and an expression of emancipation. Afterwards, I buy a CD of the sermon, hoping that one day our children will gain a greater appreciation of our visit.

Mr J and I leave ‘America’s Freedom Church’ with a spring in our step – not just because of the stirring sermon but because, as Jessie Jackson turns to leave with the Rev. Warnock, he reaches out to us and shakes our hands…

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Reverend Jessie Jackson engaging with the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Just two week’s later we chance to meet another character indelibly linked with Martin Luther King Jr.

 

We are in Florida on a whistle-stop trip, in which we cannot decide what is more amazing: watching the Falcon Heavy launch from Cape Canaveral, paddling with dolphins and horseshoe crabs in the shallows, or meeting ‘Gunny’ Gundrum…

Let me introduce you to Gunny Gundrum:

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He may look like your typical Florida ‘Snow Bird’, but according to the Emmy award-winning journalist, John Gray, Gunny is the ‘most interesting man in the world’.

On 28th August 1963 Gunny Gundrum was a U.S. Park Service ranger on “podium duty” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Gunny was one of the very few white men on stage that day. As a former Marine he stood guard over Martin Luther King, even adjusting his microphone at the beginning of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech when the crowd couldn’t hear him.

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‘Gunny’ Gundrum in the Ranger’s hat behind Dr. King.

Whilst incredibly modest about his role in the March on Washington, Gunny has lead an incredible life and is enthused to share with us ‘declassified’ tales of his time cold war USSR. In the late 1950’s the young Marine was sent to Moscow to protect military attachés. On one occasion he was relieved of his camera by an angry mob on the streets shouting, “Spy,” in Russian.

Was he a spy?

…. I wish we had more time!

These days Gunny is coping with widowhood with a remarkable zest for life and a full schedule. Having missed our morning coffee invite (“8:30-9:00am” really meant 8am) we eventually track the octogenarian down to the golf course. At the ‘funny photo‘ request from our children he poses playfully in his maintenance overalls.

We leave Mr Gundrum with an invite to impose on us in England…

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I leave you, dear reader, with words from Martin Luther King’s speech made on 3rd April 1968, the day before his assassination:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

 

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Keep the home fires burning

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On our flight home the young lady next to me wants to squeeze the Cotswolds into her three day ‘London trip’. Yes, she has seen the movie ‘The Holiday’. Our first stop is with friends in Gloucestershire’s beautiful Lechlade on Thames.

An abiding memory of our whirlwind trip to England is Mr J sitting in front of one roaring fire after another.

We were fortunate to enjoy no less than six real fires in the homes of our friends and family this Christmas – a disproportionately high ratio compared to any random sample of British households.

I note that we see more wood burning stoves during our stay than police cars. In fact, I spot more men wearing shorts in near zero temperatures than police cars. The dearth of visible law enforcement, not to mention the complete absence of firearms, are just two of the many differences between the U.S. and the U.K.

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(L) Soulless: the electric fire installed directly onto carpet at our overnight digs c/o Royal Air Force. (R) Heartwarming: Aunty Liz’s real fire, Winnie the Pooh country, Sussex.

Other cultural contrasts start at Atlanta airport – in the lounge laid on for military personnel. The lounge is well sign posted off a busy thoroughfare of departure gates and is manned entirely by volunteers. Growing up in a country under constant threat of home-grown terrorism from the IRA, this facility could never have been conceived in the U.K.

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The lounge’s Christmas tree is swamped with momentoes from appreciative troops.

Inside the lounge, veterans, families, and a handful of young men in battle fatigues, sit on uniform rows of seats. A Christmas movie is playing on a flat screen TV and there is hot food, drinks and snacks available. It is a welcoming place and a humbling experience. We can’t thank the volunteers enough. We will miss America’s appreciation of its military families.

We bring a little bit of America over to England in the form of our daughter’s ‘Elf on The Shelf’ – a mischievous imp with Houdini tendencies and a sweet tooth. I am chastised by my family for letting our children hang on to their innocent beliefs. Personally, I feel they have a whole lifetime to associate Christmas with motorway journeys, credit card bills and hangovers – why not let them have one more year of childish magic

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Overnight, our Elf slips into our friend’s cake stand and takes a big bite.

Our two-and-a-bit week visit includes one night’s stay at Hogwarts (okay, a British boarding school; but if the children don’t try it they won’t know if they like it), one Royal Air Force Welfare House, plus five guest bedrooms with friends and family and six motel rooms. (N.B. none of the motels have a roaring fire.)

We marvel at breathtaking sunsets – and hold our breath as we squeeze into teeny tiny car parking spaces. We test drive a possible car for our return to the UK – and test drive the inflexible government subcontractor who may or may not provide us with a suitable house for our posting.

We meet teachers, new friends, old friends, offspring, pets, neighbours, god parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents… We cover hundreds of miles in a huge triangle across England – and thankfully most of the time our trip does actually feel like a wonderful holiday.

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Our daughter is fascinated by this classic telephone box being used as storage for someone’s milk delivery!

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Grandma’s house: a brief flurry of snow the day after Boxing Day (Dec 27th)

We enjoy the first and last Christmas my mum is prepared to host for all three generations of our family.

As we celebrate a 70th and an 80th birthday in the same week (“Happy Birthday Grandads”) I see how different family members cope with change. I am heartened to see my dad’s brand new hearing aid, adjustable armchair, and a walker to increase the distance of his enjoyable strolls.

All this reminds of the watchword for America’s military spouses: Resilience. I know I will need all the flexibility and mental strength I can muster in the months ahead as I detangle and declutter the life we have made Stateside. It is sobering to note there are only nine more recycling collection days until we return to Blighty… Reader, I had better get on with clearing out another cupboard!

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Returning to history: Lincoln Cathedral and a Kentish Tudor cottage.

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Bluegrass, AK-15s, and a former president

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Yatesville’s Sheriff, Dan Kilgore, tunes up for a set of live Bluegrass at the Chitlin’ Hoedown.

Autumn has reached the Deep South bringing clear, bright days, cooler nights, and beautiful ‘fall color‘ to the woods surrounding our home. We fill a whole bucket with pecans collected from Mr J’s air force base, our friends’ yard, and President Carter’s boyhood farm in Archery.

With Thanksgiving week off school, I put our children to work sweeping up leaves and pine needles for 25¢ per bag. They earn $1.50 each. It is a valuable lesson in repetitive tasks when they wake the next day to a new layer of leaves on the lawn…

Autumn is probably the prettiest time of year in Georgia and we take advantage of the milder, mosquito-free conditions to catch some unique outdoor events.

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This young tractor driver joins a parade of vehicles celebrating Yatesville’s rural culture.

First comes our day out in Yatesville, home of the Chitlin Hoedown. We have driven through Yatesville many a time on our way to Woodbury – the setting for the Walking Dead comic books, and now home to the charming and lively Blackbird Cafe.

We have never been to a hoedown. And Mr J needs to satisfy his curiosity: what on earth are Chitlins? It is time to pull over just beyond the town’s only set of traffic lights and find out.

When I describe Yatesville as a town, it is little more than a crossroad of derelict stores; the crumbling facades of former feed stores testify to the fragility of rural economies and the power of the Dollar General.

The Urban Dictionary’s definition of chitlin tells you all you need to know: “Pig intestines, smells bad.” Defying all expectations, our ‘picky’ son is the only one who can stomach the fried delicacy…

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Locals of all ages get up on their feet to enjoy a dance.

We sit upwind of the unique and unforgettable smell coming from the kitchen and enjoy over an hour of Bluegrass music. Banjo player and Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Gary Crenshaw, chats with us backstage as he tunes up. The humidity makes perfect pitch a constant challenge, he says. Gary invites us to his next solo concert in December.

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This smartly-dressed local make an early reservation in front of the stage.

A couple of weeks later we bundle up against the cold and drive 45 minutes to Gray, GA, venue of America’s second largest chainsaw carving event: Chaptacular. This annual fundraiser for cystic fibrosis research attracts heavy-duty carvers from all over the country, from New York State to New Mexico. We wander through the old pecan grove to watch timed competitions and marvel at the items for sale, all carved using power tools.

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An inclusive art: a wheelchair user and two women are amongst the many competitors.

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Craftsmen at work.

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This bear family carved into a huge log is probably our favourite. Many newly carved items are auctioned off for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

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A local teenager, Charlie, has been carving for just a handful of weeks.

bear!

What can be scarier than a seven foot grizzly? A grizzly with an AR-15!

Finally, last Sunday we return to Maranatha Baptist Church, Plains, and President Carter’s Sunday School. We continue to be amazed at how many Georgians are unaware of Jimmy Carter’s unique and intimate Sunday ritual.

Mr J and a fellow Royal Air Force officer are in uniform for a belated Remembrance Sunday ceremony. They stand to attention when the former president enters the sanctuary and each is asked by President Carter where they are stationed and in what role.

Mr Jimmy

President Carter may be losing some of his hearing but is otherwise in incredible shape for 93.

Rosalyn Carter quietly takes a seat two rows behind us. I could almost reach out and touch her… except the church is peppered with secret service agents! The Carters themselves have an air of informality – although in true Southern style Rosalyn Carter looks as polished and radiant today as she did back in the ’70s.

President Carter’s Sunday School is delivered from a personal perspective and he uses vocabulary to include of all God’s children: man, woman, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Rosalyn calls out from just behind us to remind her husband that there is a Syrian refugee in the congregation. We welcome him with polite applause. There are also a number a of Central and South American students visiting from Fort Rucker, Alabama. An Argentine Captain, born around the year of the Falklands’ invasion, is the one student to come over and chat with Mr J and his colleague. The gesture is appreciated.

After lunch with Maranatha church stalwarts, Miss Jan and Mr George, we head to Oak Grove Cemetery, Americus. Here we commemorate the life of Clarence Johnson, a British trainee pilot who died far from home in 1942. We are joined at the graveside by three representatives of the US Air Force, plus Adrian, the daughter of a local Vietnam Vet who helped us find Clarence’s War Commission grave in 2014.

It is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

We formally hand over our annual remembrance of Clarence’s ultimate sacrifice to a new British military family; letting go of one of the many rituals we have established during our posting… The next six months will see us letting go of more rituals as we prepare to return to the UK.

 

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Spray on cheese

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The clan’s tartan redefined

Over the past few weeks, moved by events such as the shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 concert-goers were killed by a man armed with 23 guns, I have sat down to express a British perspective on our posting in America.

It has been a struggle to find the words.

The aim of my blog has always been to give a carefully considered record of my experiences Stateside… During the last year I have found my core beliefs increasingly at odds with the political zeitgeist, and I have self-censored my views. Not just on responsible gun control, but other topics close to my heart, such as climate change, universal healthcare and reproductive rights, and gender identity… to name but a few.

As a pilgrim of Cheddar Gorge, England, I find I can speak candidly about spray on cheese – a topic mooted by my rather incredulous son this morning. Reader, cheese is not meant to be sprayed. Period. There, I’ve said it. At least I have the guts to stick my head above the cheese snack sauce parapet.

America is a democracy. The bedrock of capitalism. The land of the brave… where, if spray on cheese is sold it is your right to use it. As abhorrent as it sounds to me, brother and sister, you have the freedom to believe spray on cheese is okay, if not ‘great’.

Of course, spray on cheese is just a metaphor for all the things that upset my spiritual equilibrium…

Even last weekend’s decision to enjoy some Celtic culture at the 40th annual Highland Games is tinged with politics. The games’ venue, Stone Mountain – immortalised in Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech – is also known as the Confederate Mount Rushmore. Happily, this all-things-Scottish besotted crowd –  unsurprisingly 99.99% caucasian – is convivial and welcoming to all: sporran or no sporran.

drummerThe vibrancy of the gathering is contagious.

As summer turns to autumn I urge you to get out there and do something different, to push your boundaries and see things from a different perspective. That is what our posting offers me, and I am grateful for it…

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500 pipers and drummers join together from as far as Texas to experience both the competition and the camaraderie of the Highland Games

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Some serious kilt styling

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Just a wee dram…

 

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We can all agree with this sentiment…

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Coincidence is a cuss word

aftermath

After Hurricane Irma blows through our children enjoy the easing rain – and set about rescuing some of the thousands of earth worms being washed away down the storm drains.

Despite Hurricane Irma‘s wrath (30 hours without power and a roughed up garden) it seems nothing can stand in the way of ticking off my 17th state: Louisiana. Yes, I am on my way to my second Southern Independent Booksellers Association annual shindig, this time in New Orleans.

For literature lovers, SIBA’s three day event is like sitting at all-you-can-eat sushi conveyor belt of books.

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All is calm off the causeway into New Orleans.

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We spot SIBA’s venue as we exit the I-10 for the Superdrome and Canal St.

I am grateful to join my friends Mr and Mrs A – veteran SIBA volunteers – on their eight hour drive to the ‘Big Easy’. Crocheting, tic-tacs, and pancakes from Burger King (3 for 89c) break up the monotony. I know we have broken the back of our four-states odyssey when we climb the elevated causeway across the now-familiar swamps of Mississippi – Mr J and I drove part of this route two Christmases ago.

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An impressive road system crosses the swamps of Mississippi.

I am delighted to see familiar faces from last year’s SIBA team: Jim and Justine; Chuck; Steve-and-Frank (or is it Frank-and-Steve?); Barb, Carolyn, Chris, and the rest of the Anderson dynasty…

I am also delighted to be back in the author’s pre-signing room. Here, I help unload boxes of ARCs (advance reading copies) and/or first editions, all to be signed by their authors, re-packed, and transported to events around the hotel where they are handed out to independent booksellers from all over the South. Our days are long but there is bottomless coffee and a challenging array of spicy cajun-style kettle chips keep us going.

As guest speaker Rick Bragg muses off the cuff at a very early Sunday morning breakfast, Southern authors “leave words sticking in your head like fish hooks.” (Rick has such a way with words, and only swears perhaps once or twice…) I have the pleasure of meeting established writers as diverse as Wiley Cash, Radney Foster, Robert Beatty and Judy Schachner, plus debut authors Simeon Marsalis and Quvenzhané Wallis (14).

Mr Bragg also states that New Orleans is the kind of city where, “you wake up on your back… under a pool table… with your shirt smelling suspiciously ofMidnight In Paris'”. With my work ethic, I barely get to leave the hotel. My experience of NOLA is reflected in my conservative choice of souvenir magnet: yes, I stood on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, but didn’t have time to venture in. As the truism goes, if you remember New Orleans, you really weren’t there..

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So, I return from New Orleans with an uncommon clarity of recollection – but with an armful of signed books made more precious by memories of their authors.

Mr Bragg also leaves an impression on my whole family after being inadvertently sucked into my regular Sunday morning conference call to family. When I tell him I am calling my parents in England, Mr Bragg says he will be travelling there soon and can encroach on their hospitality? His says his needs are simple: “that cheese… that stilton cheese they sell in a pot in Harrods.” Your guest room is ready, sir.

Finally, I cannot wrap up my account to SIBA without mentioning Curt Isles. We find ourselves seated next to each other at one of the busy dinners – and discovered we have a rare life experience in common: South Sudan. Curt was there on mission work in 2013 – a decade after my fact-finding trip with the Irish charity Concern.

Curt has recalled his three years in South Sudan in a memoire called Trampled Grass. He tells me his book title draws a parallel between waring bull elephants and the devastating struggle for power in South Sudan. We were both asked not to be forgotten by the people we met – and Curt urges me to dig out my journal and interviews and share my stories too.

When I suggest that our meeting was a coincidence Curt’s eyes twinkle, “For a Christian, coincidence is a cuss word.”

So, Curt, here is one of my interviews; it is with a Dinka lady from Yirol, aptly named America:

“Earlier we were having a big problem getting water. People had to walk two hours going and coming back – so a trip of five hours. Sometimes not even five hours, because you’d find a queue where you went for water and you would have to wait. Sometimes you would have to sleep there, or come back in the morning…

You have to leave your children in the house – in a high-up room (traditional Tukul hut is built on stilts). And if there is no one taking care of them they sometimes fall and break a leg or an arm – because there is no big person around. This has happened while mothers collected water from far areas.

But now there is a big difference because the water is close to our house and we’ll be able to collect water very near. We’ll be able to do other jobs which we were not able to do before. We will be able to improve our lives by cultivating more land and other household tasks which were hindered by water-collection only. Now it is better and we’ll improve our lives.

Water is the source of everything – since we have water now we have life.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Bracing for Hurricane Irma

Irma Ready

We drink three sodas a day until someone says “storm“, and then we’re fish!” The cashier at my local supermarket jovially quotes a previous customer. There may still be water on the shelves today – but there is a gaping hole on the shop floor where palettes of bottled water are usually stacked.

There is no air of panic buying yet. And by glancing in a few sample shopping carts this morning I can report that beer, wine and spirits are taking precedence over water.

Water is the last thing to go,” chips in a gentleman in the checkout queue, sagely recalling the flood of 1994. To be fair, Tropical Storm Alberto did leave the whole county without water for nearly three weeks…. There were riots elsewhere. Today our city’s water plant is located on higher ground.

I heed the flurry of emails from our insurance companies and Mr J’s work to be prepared: I buy 8 one gallon bottles of water. We already have some emergency beer:

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With four days to go before Hurricane Irma can touch middle Georgia I see my first ever Red Cross truck. The Navy, Marines and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have already moved onto Mr J’s base. Aircraft are being flown out to free up hanger space. All of Macon’s hotels were booked out several days ago. In fact, there is hardly a hotel room to be found between here and Tennessee. Two evacuation shelters are opening up in town, including one just for evacuated pets. We are asked to keep the main evacuation routes clear of local traffic…

Key West

Sigsbee RV Park, Naval Air Base Key West; an artist sets up outside Ernest Hemmingway’s house; bijou island cottage.

I leave you with a few photos from our wonderful stay in Key West last December. We are thinking of everyone who have been evacuated from The Keys, the state of Florida, and Georgia’s beautiful coastline. And of course we cannot forget the residents of Houston, Texas, who are still in great distress two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall…

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My daughter expresses her feelings after hearing news on the radio of six members of one family drowning in a van in Houston, TX. Only driver, the great uncle, makes it to safety.

The rule of thumb here is you don’t have to worry until a news reporter turns up in your neighbourhood… Wish us luck on Tuesday.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

Totality fun in north Georgia

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There is a party atmosphere amongst campers at Top of Georgia Airstream Park

If a total eclipse isn’t surreal enough we watch it surrounded by Airstreams – capsules of riveted aluminium, glinting in the intensifying light like a homing beacon to extra terrestrials.

We have had to travel almost two miles for every second of total eclipse we witness. And that 1 minute 40 seconds goes so fast! However, it is worth the journey to the uppermost corner of north Georgia to have this experience of a lifetime as a family. And while most of our fellow Airstream enthusiasts are Georgia-based members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, the young family opposite prepped their new-to-them ’75 camper in just one month to travel all the way from Virginia…

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Darkness falls at half past one in the afternoon…

The difference between 1999’s partial eclipse in the UK and this week’s total eclipse is – if you’ll pardon the pun – the difference between night and day. I capture the dramatic transition from partial eclipse to totality on video as my children’s awe-struck faces are plunged into near darkness.

Seconds before, I take just one photo of the fast-growing gloom (above), determined to put down my camera and be in the moment. This is harder for my son, who jumps up and announces he is going to find some art materials and draw the total eclipse! I tell him there is not enough time…

In the blink of an eye the sun breaks free of the moon and we put our eclipse glasses back on. The total eclipse is over – but the party continues amongst the park’s Airstream-owning community as we share slices of water melon and trailer maintenance tips.

2 generations

New or vintage, Airstreams have a unique and arguably ageless charm.

We wander to the far end of the park-in-the-valley where we hear rumour of an amateur astronomer. Bruce generously shares both his photographs from his camera and live images through his specially-adapted telescope.

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There are different ways to appreciate the eclipse after totality: Rod shows us how to use binoculars and card; in Bruce’s kitchen we see the emerging sun on the countertop.

 

All too soon it is time to pack up our camper and say goodbye to our new friends.

It is hard not to fall in love with Top of Georgia Airstream Park and the gentle stream where our son tries fly fishing for the first time under the guidance of fellow camper, Mike. We also love visiting Tommy again, the miller at Nora Mills Granary, who remembers our kids from last spring.

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Our son’s first attempt at fly fishing is a lesson in patience!

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(R) The proprietor aged 21, c.1976; (C) his Rock Shop on GA-75; (L) the shop’s cat makes a unconventional appearance through the ceiling.

Aside our precious memories, I return home with another beautiful piece from The Willows Pottery – a place zen reigns. I am told my salt-glazed bowl will last until the earth takes it back into it’s fiery folds… just as long as I don’t drop it.

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With it’s creamy, cratered surface, this bowl will always remind me of the day the sun was eclipsed by the moon in Georgia.

We use local knowledge to beat most of the tourist traffic clogging the mountain roads. As we tire on our marathon return journey Mr J and I agree this amazing experience has been ‘educational’ enough to justify the long drive and a day out of school. In England, our children’s absence from class would be breaking the law… This only serves to remind us to squeeze every last drop of fun out of our dwindling posting to America’s Deep South!

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.

 

Taking the high road

crooked path

A very different landscape: Mr J fossil hunts with our friends in Maryland.

The children went back to school last week. Finally, a moment to reflect on the dying days of their summer break…

Firstly, preparation for our most ambitious road trip to date gets off to an inauspicious start with our Chevi Suburban spending a whole week at the mechanics.

Our Chevi has almost become an extended member of our family, and like many 17 year olds is increasingly expensive to maintain. Funnily enough, the mechanic called out last year to jump start the battery cheerfully stated that, at 250,000 miles, we were just “breaking it in…” Having spent the equivalent of a ‘new car’ on our children’s schools fees this month we have to hope he is right.

One day later the Chevi’s radiator explodes towing our Airstream home from a fruitless pre-trip service (not surprisingly, spare parts are hard to find for a 45 year old caravan). Now, with just 24 hours until departure, we scramble to find a radiator specialist open on a Saturday. Thank you Mr Smith!

With a sense of déjà-vous we embark on a 2,000 mile round trip to see our friends in Maryland with no hot water and no air conditioning in our camper. It is an uncomfortable re-run of last August’s Florida turtle-hatching adventure, only this time we are heading north.

Day One: We camp in beautiful north Georgia, and cross the following morning into North Carolina near Cherokee, the home of the Cherokee people. We pay to visit to their Oconaluftee Village, where a mature 15 year old Logan walks us through a number of traditional craft demonstrations: weaving, beading, pottery, carving and weapon-making. I ask if Logan’s school incorporates local Cherokee culture, like playing stickball, into the curriculum. It does not. However, two weeks ago Logan picked up a blowgun for the first time and it turns out he is a bit of a hot shot. Logan really wants to get out of North Carolina and get into acting…

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Cherokee comes across as is a static representation of a former nation. It leaves me wondering what kind of future our guide Logan and his peers can look forward to.

After Cherokee we pick up the 469 mile long Blue Ridge Parkway – and soon spot our first wild black bear, ambling across the road in broad daylight. Mr J is thrilled. Master J is asleep.

Another abiding memory from this 30-mile section of our trip is the thousands of Red-spotted Purple butterflies fluttering in the dappled sunlight on the roadside, or lying dead on the tarmac. When we park up at the numerous scenic spots in the mountains our children cradle dead and dying butterflies by the handful.

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After almost setting our breaks on fire on our precarious descent from the Parkway’s 5000ft peaks, Mr J quickly learns to drive our automatic in manual gear! When the (literal) smoke clears we have missed our planned campsite’s 8pm curfew… Just another anecdote to add to our growing list of Airstream mini-adventures.

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Enjoying another amazing view on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

With my role as Chief Trip Planner falling at the end of a long summer keeping the little ones happy I decide to indulge my own interests en route. My daughter thinks I am joking when I state we will call in on north Georgia’s artisan potters, Asheville’s excellent Folk Art Centre, and Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

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Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is well worth a visit – and general admission is free.

We could have spent a whole day at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. However, with our tight schedule we can only squeeze in a guided tour of the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia, briefly admire the sculpture garden, and spend an hour in the polished Yves Saint Laurent special exhibition – which is free with our military ID.

I only wish our 7 year old daughter, with her natural flare for crafting headwear from paper and footwear from kitchen foil, was more impressed by Yves’ creative genius… She is not. She is tired and bored.

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As a teenager Yves Saint Laurent used models cut from magazines to show off his fashion creations.

Day Six: We make it to California… California, Maryland, that is. The next day we drive to Washington D.C. with our Canadian friends and split team: dads/kids/Botanic Garden; mums/no-kids/The National Art Gallery. Mrs F and I enjoy several hours of light-hearted art critiquing, resulting in the idea of a layman’s guide to modern art with the working title: ‘Would You Use It To Fix A Broken Window?

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I enjoyed the detail of this oil painting by Jean Dubuffet. “Preserves of Matter and Light (Texturology LIII)” 1958

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A few of my favourite female portraits. I apologise for not noting titles and artists…

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I take some pictures to show my children, after all, what child does not like cake and toads?

Our friends have three teenagers at home these days. Teenagers = free babysitting.

The grown ups sneak out for a matinee showing of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk‘.We come back moved, and slightly disorientated that it still only mid afternoon…

After lots of late night board games with cocktails (adults), fossil-hunting and Lego-making (adults and children), and family day trips to Baltimore and Fort McHenry – home of the original ‘Star Spangled Banner’ – it is time to say goodbye for another two or three years and head back to Georgia with our lobster-flavoured potato crisps.

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I add to a few more painted barns to my collection.

We travel via Charlottesville to visit nearby Monticello, home of the third American President, Thomas Jefferson. On the Slavery at Monticello Tour my daughter asks why the man who stated “all men are created equal” had 200 enslaved people on his plantation? I can see her social conscience developing before my eyes. A week later, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville will result in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer – and ignite a debate on America’s complicated past and its ongoing divisions.

Travelling with two young children in a 25′ travel trailer is no bed of roses, especially when one of your children has ADHD. However we do manage to tick off a pretty idyllic-sounding list of experiences: Old Winston-Salem, buying ‘mint’ Thomas Jefferson $2 bills (for $2), camp fire making, rainbow trout feeding, bison watching, butterfly collecting, extensive bottle cap collecting, lake fishing, moonlit frog hunting, flint knapping, hoop-rolling, and miniature train and pedal boat riding at the 5th oldest amusement park in America…

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Petersburg Campground Usace, a US Corps of Engineers campsite near Augusta, GA.

I hope in years to come our children will look back on this trip – possibly the last road trip we’ll ever take on our posting – and agree that we are one very fortunate family.

 

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A balancing act

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The High Divers, a band from South Carolina, play ‘Second Sunday’ on Coleman Hill: Miss J is diverted by balancing stones on the footpath

Three months is a quarter of a year or, on average, 90 days. Two months into a three-month-long summer holiday can be expressed as 66.66%. If a mother spends four hours a day encouraging her children to complete one hour’s worth of journal writing and maths, how many hours are unproductive and needlessly frustrating? Times that number by seven days a week. Times that answer by twelve weeks. If a day is 24 hours long, how many days in total has the mother spent needlessly frustrated? Express that as a percentage of her year.

Reader, our school holidays Stateside are simply too long – unless you are some kind of saint, of course. I begin to see our holiday – not to mention my life – expressed as one big maths problem…

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My daughter’s Picasso-like sketch captures ‘me’ beautifully.

Fearing ‘The Summer Slide‘ (academic regression) Mr J and I work doggedly on reading, writing and arithmetic with our two children. Our return next year to the UK’s more rigorous National Curriculum makes the summer slide more troubling. We devour box-loads of books from the library, and pick out our free book from completed summer reading schemes. I incorporate maths into our grocery shopping, pizza cutting, and Master J’s ‘golf ball business plan’. Car rides create a captive audience for number bonds and times tables.

However, it takes a balance of discipline and freedom to get through a school break this long, so we also: paint and draw; photograph our hummingbirds; practice our golf swing; horse ride; swim; and even spot President Trumps’ Air Force One alongside the airfield on squadron Family Day…

It has been a busy summer for the tooth fairy too.

My daughter loses two front teeth in close succession, just like the same milk teeth cut through. Then my son needs a tooth extracted for his orthodontic work. Before his appointment we have a few minutes to spare and so check in on the restoration of Little Richard’s childhood home at its new location on Craft Street in downtown Macon. I don’t see Russ, the project’s manager, but work is coming along nicely with completed crawl space and new roof beams.

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Facing up bravely to minor surgery, Master J insists that he doesn’t want any money from the tooth fairy. A tooth extraction is apparently ‘cheating’. He leaves her a note to that effect. The tooth fairy slips a book under his pillow instead:

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I’m not sure the book covers meticulously checking bubble gum machine change slots… This habit won’t make my son a millionaire but does bring a wealth of excitement; this week the penny counting machine at the supermarket yields a rejected One Cent, dating from 1919.

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Part of my balancing act is to squeeze in the odd date night with Mr J. Tonight I am bringing together Mr J, friends and neighbours, to watch a Special Screening of Brave New Jersey. But first I have to prep the house for the babysitter, make dinner, and of course find a few minutes to get ready for my hot date. Wish me luck with that! I hope to report back on the opening night of the Macon Film Festival next week. Until then, I wish you luck with your own balancing act.

 

PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.