By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
I’m not sure why Steve Strickland thought I might have something to share at a recent Lions Club meeting. I’m not sure that an aging flower child who sits at home in a tattered bathrobe and writes all day is as interesting as some of the dignitaries that the Lions have welcomed to their meetings, but I tried my best to pull something out of a hat for them.
Speaking of hats…the first thing people say when meeting me for the first time is that they don’t recognize me without my hat. Well, the truth is, I never wear hats, with the exception of the mother/daughter tea held the Saturday before each Mother’s Day to benefit our library. When they needed a picture of me for my column, this was the only one I could find. Now, I’m stuck — immortalized for eternity in a big green hat…
The next question I’m asked is how I came to be writing for The Cullman Times: Well, that’s sorta one of those God things. On a cold Sunday morning just before Christmas four years ago, just as the sun was coming up, I was writing my Moulton column and I got to thinking, if I’m ever going to make any money at this, or reach more people, I have to branch out….so I sat there and Googled every newspaper within driving distance of my home. I included my very small bio and a writing sample and emailed the editor of six area papers. In less than 10 minutes I got a reply from Derek Price, who was then the editor for The Cullman Times. He said “Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Last Friday a lady gave me her notice. She wrote the Saturday feature ‘Friends & Neighbors’.”
Derek went on to say that he was on a plane bound for Texas and wouldn’t return until Jan. 2, and could I come in for an interview because he found my writing sample to be very interesting. I went in prepared for an interview, but when I got there, he just wanted me to fill out a W-2 form….I already had the job…so he turned me loose on Cullman, and it’s been a real adventure.
You have the most interesting people, the most heartwarming stories, the most kind and generous communities, and I’ve fallen in love with Cullman.
The third question is how I started writing. Well, I grew up writing. Long distance charges were prohibitive, so I wrote letters to my out-of-state relatives. I made up stories for my classmates in elementary school, penned notes to pass in class, to my mother and always to my friends. Later, as a teenager, I wrote hundreds of letters to local boys in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Those letters are mostly wrapped in ribbon and reside in my attic now. But sometimes on rainy days I go up there under the eaves and read some of them. It’s a way to stay in touch with my mom, with old memories, and with my younger, more idealistic self.
I can read those letters and remember how I felt when John Kennedy was killed, because I wrote it down. I wrote down how it felt to sit on an ottoman in front of a little black and white television set with rabbit ear antennaes, listening as they called out the dates drawn in the draft in the early ’70s, knowing those dates on those little white balls spelled out a death sentence for lots of the boys who were unfortunate enough to be drawn from the spinning wire basket.
I wrote notes in diaries about my first kiss, in fact, I still have the gum wadded up and held together in a crumbling piece of paper tied with a rubber band, the date still barely visible.
Some of those letters made their way back to me by way of relatives of some of the guys who were killed. I’ve read them thousands of times…wondering what in the world those guys wanted to hear about such mundane things as what we had for Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house. But then I came to realize that it was because they craved some kind of normalcy — some way to stay in touch with the world they’d left behind. So, I decided that if they wanted to know about what we ate, I’d have to learn to describe it pretty darn well. So, being a little hippie, I secretly went to Cornfield County. Remember Cornfield County? From Hee Haw? If you were “cool”, you didn’t want people to know you watched Hee Haw. Remember how they would pop up out of the corn rows and describe their food? Well, that’s how I learned to bring food to life on paper. I wrote to those guys half a world away about the most countrified, glorified, magnified, golden-fried chicken you could ever imagine. And about mountains of Halloween-orange candied sweet potatoes with rivers of yellow home-churned butter running down the sides, and green beans seasoned with the perfect amount of seasonings saved from the last hog killing, or piping hot cornbread from the oven in Grandma’s old cast iron skillet, and from scratch caramel cakes with sugary-syrupy icing clinging to the sides. Or sweet tea...gallons of sweet iced tea in gallon pickle jars, the sides sweating in the afternoon sun.
Then I learned to describe the smells of all the things they longed for…like the scent of warm cotton candy hanging in the air above the crowds at the fair. The autumn smell of candied apples covered in nuts, dipped in a hard red sauce that turned into a crackled shell that tasted like a little bit of heaven and stuck your bottom and top teeth together. Or roasted peanuts, salty and crunchy in little red and white paper bags, and buttered popcorn or hot dogs sizzling on a little farris wheel — things you could smell the minute you got out of the car in the parking lot. I never realized until now that reminding those boys of the smells of home might take them away from the smell of napalm for a few minutes.
I wrote about the juxtaposition between watching June Cleaver in her pearls, heels and apron at 5:30, calling Ward and the Beaver to dinner, then David Brinkley and Chet Huntley at 6:00 showing taped clips of the war in Vietnam, bombs exploding in the background and boys on stretchers being put into waiting helicopters or ambulances. It was a surreal time in America, and in my life.
It seemed to me that we were the first generation to buck the system, but then as I got older I realized that rallying against the government was as old as the Revolutionary War. It was as old as Lincoln, who was also a writer, and in my opinion, one of the greatest of all time. It is as old as the rebellion against slavery, women’s rights, and civil rights. We hippies were just a blip on the radar screen of history.
But in Cullman, there were other things being talked about. Like cigars….
It was so interesting to me that back in the ’50s, Cullman produced a breed of men who would go as far as necessary to bring to Cullman the industries that started your economic heritage. Those men went the distance for their families and their communities. They were affectionately known as the Flying 50.
Some of you are descendants of those men — what an amazing legacy that must be!
Bert McGriff told me a story not long ago about a woman who called him from Fairview. He drove all the way out there and she gave him all she had, a small sum, and said that she would have given more if she’d had it to keep her sons, daughters and grandchildren here, instead of going north to work in automotive factories.
Those little donation receptacles that they put all over town were inspirational…they remind me of Mark 12: 13-17 “And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
There came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.’"
Those little receptacles gave people in the rural areas of Cullman a chance to be a part of something big, they gave people who barely had two nickels to rub together a chance to offer one of them to the cause of making Cullman great.
Those men set the standard for the Cullman of today, about which I am humbled to write. Organizations like the Lions are the Flying 50 of today. People like Chester Freeman, were your role models.
The estimated dollar value of volunteer time is $20.25.
According to that figure, the Cullman Lions’ total worth as volunteers for the fair alone, just the Lions (not the Leos or the Lionesses) was worth $72,900 in volunteer hours. The ham and fish dinner totaled $7,897.50 in volunteer hours.
And none of them ever asked for or expected a dime.
So what is my part in all of this? I would hope that it is, in some small measure, to tell your stories. To inspire others to follow in your footsteps and the footsteps of others in the multitude of service organizations here in Cullman and across the country.
It humbles me every day to be able to tell the stories of men like Chester Freeman, Bert McGriff, and maybe some day, Roy Drinkard. To be able to share the heartbreaks and the joys of people like Bruce Shaw, the brave young man who was paralyzed in football practice in Holly Pond, or the everyday people who fought in wars, and now go about their lives here in this city without much recognition for their heroism. Those are the stories that motivate me to keep writing. Keep them coming, Cullman!