Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This is a photo taken at a homecoming at the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church near Hix in Summers County, West Virginia. Front row, left to right:  unidentified gentleman, Irma Amick Ballengee, Frank Burdette, Gladys Burdette, Tom Shephard.  Back row:  Fred Lively, Callie Shepherd, Red Ballengee, Mr. Lively (Hub?).
In the olden days, when my mind was quicker and my joints didn't hurt so much, late in the summer churches held get-togethers that everyone called a Homecoming.  Some churches today continue that tradition, but it just doesn't seem to have the dramatic effect that homecomings used to have.

My family attended Sewell Valley Baptist Church in Rainelle, West Virginia.  Sewell Valley really knew how to put on a homecoming.  The homecoming itself was a one-day event on Sunday, but the preparation began days ahead of time with the cooking taking up most of the Saturday before.  And please understand, this was not a hot dog and hamburger kind of picnic.  No.  These dinners-on-the-grounds were complete home-cooked meals with a meat, two vegetables, salad, and dessert.  Sometime in the 1960s my mother bought a contraption that consisted of five or six round metal containers into which the various dishes could be placed.  The containers were then stacked on each other, making a column which was clasped into a wire-like handle and carried forth to share at the homecoming.  It was the high-tech way to transport cooked food, and it sure beat cramming bowls and pots of hot food into a cardboard box.

Homecoming at Sewell Valley started with the regular church services, Sunday school followed by worship during which a guest preacher usually delivered the sermon. There was singing.  Oh, there was lots of singing. After the blessing was pronounced at the end of the sermon, everyone trooped out to the long wooden tables that had been set up under the trees in front of the church.  On those tables the women (this was not a job for men) had set out the various dishes they'd brought, all home-cooked and still a little warm.  This was the time for adults to visit, children to play, for the men to sneak away from the crowd to smoke cigarettes.   When the music started inside the church, that was the cue for everyone to trickle inside for the afternoon "singing" which lasted into late afternoon.

Of course, homecoming was the time for those who had moved away to return and visit family and friends.  They came back to their home church.  My father, Red Ballengee, did not have much contact with family or friends once he left Summers County.  His parents were dead; he had some half-brothers and sisters, but he'd not maintained contact with them.  I think it was my mother who encouraged him to drive back up Sourwood Mountain to see if things had changed, and I also think it might have been so that I, who was in my early teens, could see where my dad had grown up.  The friends he visited, especially Mr. Tom Shephard (I think he was one of my dad's teachers) and his daughter, Callie, suggested that my dad come to the Homecoming at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church.

Chestnut Grove was a small church, but the building was overflowing at that Homecoming.  Other than the picture I took of my parents, my uncle and his wife, and my dad's friends in front of the church, the only other thing that I remember of that day is that I was recruited to play the piano for the singing.  I play the piano only a little, by reading music, not by ear.  This means that I can only play the songs as they are written in the hymnal.  If you insist on improvising your singing while I accompany you on the piano, you will rapidly be singing a cappella. When the call went out for a piano player that Sunday, my parents were all too happy to point out that I could play.  I managed to play the songs they were singing, because they used the songs I knew from the hymnal.  It wasn't terribly complicated.  I think it made my dad happy.

Other than being a little stressed because of the piano playing at Chestnut Grove, all my memories of homecomings are beautiful ones.  Homecomings were joyful, exciting times when you could count on being received with a smile at the old home church.  I don't think it's an accident that homecomings take place at churches.  This is our reminder of the great homecoming yet to be, when trials and pain are forgotten at the joy of being reunited with family and old friends.  There will be singing.  Yes, lots of singing.

Sunday School class at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church around 1921 or so.  Red Ballengee is the boy in the suit who looks remarkably like Opie Taylor.  

Friday, February 11, 2011


This is not a short story.  It goes back to October 1991 when we moved into the house where we currently live.  At the time the housing development was brand new; our house was one of the first few houses to be built.  There were no trees, no grass, no flowers.  Just new homes in a sea of yellow straw spread on grass seed that was waiting to sprout.

By January 1992 we had found that our development was the favorite spot for people to drop off their unwanted dogs.  We took in a blonde shepherd mix who had been wandering around the neighborhood irritating people for a week or so.  She was extremely thin by the time we started feeding her, but she didn't stay thin for long.  Katie named her Tinkerbell, and we called her Tinker for short.  Her story will be saved for another day.

We had already had the one dog for a while when two black and white rapscallions found shelter under the porch of a house that was under construction down the street.  It didn't seem that they had been dropped off but were probably older dogs who had taken off for greener pastures and instead found themselves hungry and unloved by just about anyone who saw them.

Of course they were attracted to our house.  Katie never met a dog she didn't like, and there always seemed to be a bowl of dog food from which they could steal a bite, no matter how much I told Katie not to feed those dogs. One of the dogs was a short-haired hound of some kind with droopy ears.  He came to be known as Buddy, because he was Katie's buddy everywhere she went.  He also has an interesting story.

The subject of today's story was a larger dog, although he was not as big as a black lab.  He had long hair, also black and white, like a big border collie. Once you name the dog, you know, there is no going back.  The bigger dog was named Pablo.

I imagine that while Pablo was at our house was the first time in his life that he had ever been shown any affection.  We petted him and fed him, and he played with Katie and the other dogs.  At our house he was happy, although he (and Buddy, too) had a wandering streak that could not be subdued.  They both liked to go off for hours at a time to take care of dog business.  I tried tying them up in the back yard; they chewed through the leashes and pulled chains out of the ground.

Our new neighbors began to complain and started acting strange around us.  They were afraid of the dogs.  When families took an evening walk, our dogs barked at them.  This situation was not helped by those who carried huge sticks on these walks and struck at the dogs with the club.  Dogs are territorial and defensive.  If you want to tame a dog, start slowly and act kindly.  Don't beat the dog with a stick.

We suffered through meetings called by our neighbors, visits from the animal control officer, and humiliating conversations with our agitated neighbors.  It was not pleasant in our new home.  Plus we had the task of feeding and caring for three pretty-good-size dogs.  That summer we had a fence built around our yard so that we could keep the dogs up.  I remember the day it was finished; Larry's mom and dad were visiting us, and when the workers finished up, we put the dogs inside the fence and left to eat supper out.  It felt so good to not have to worry about where the dogs were.  When we got back home and pulled into the driveway, there sat dear Pablo in our front yard, and I swear he was smiling as if to say, "That fence was no challenge for me.  It was only a short jump for me to clear that piece of fence."  We were back to square one.

I had both Buddy and Pablo neutered because that is supposed to calm down male dogs, making them less interested in running around.

That fall it became clear that we had too many dogs, and I ran an ad saying that we had a dog to give away.  Pablo drew the short straw.  A farmer who lived up near Konnarock called us.  He was looking for another dog; I think he had lost one, but I don't really remember.  He came by the house, and he seemed to be a quiet man and peaceful.  He told us how when he walked around doing his farm work, his dog would affectionately slip his nose into the farmer's hand while they were walking.  He attached a leash to Pablo's collar and put him into the cab of his truck.  I cried.

Things settled down with our two dogs.  I missed Pablo; he was always attached to me, maybe because I usually fed him.  Maybe because I was kind to him.  Around Christmas time, on a day when the weather was unusually warm and sunny, I went down to the garage one evening after supper to close the garage door.  I lost my breath when I saw dear Pablo running toward me, coming up the little hill to our house, smiling in that way that dogs have when they are extremely happy.

Depending on where you are "around" Konnarock, it can be as much as 25 miles from our house.  Pablo had walked that 25 miles or so, smart enough to remember the way back to Applewood and determined enough to not give up until he reached the Estep house.  I called the farmer and told him that Pablo was at our house. He told me that he kept Pablo in the barn the first few days, but on Thursday he had let him out some, and as soon as he got out, Pablo took off.  The farmer mailed Pablo's tags back to us with a note that read, "He must love your family very much."

So we were back to our over-population of dogs.  We gave Buddy to a friend who lived in West Virginia, and before long she brought him back to us.  Buddy would not stay home.  And dogs being dogs, males seeking dominance in the pack, there came a day when Buddy and Pablo got into an explosive fight which I had to break up.  At that point I felt that something had to be done, even if it were something drastic, and I pretty much came to this conclusion by myself.

I called around several vet offices to see about making arrangements, so that by the time Larry came home from work that afternoon, I told him what I thought had to be done.  Larry said that if Pablo ever hurt Katie, he would kill him himself.  I took the leash and went out to the front porch where Pablo had lain in the corner since the fight.  I will never forget the subdued way he looked up at me, ears down, a cut on the top of his nose from the fight.  I hooked the leash to his collar, and he willingly followed me to the van.  He would have gone anywhere that I was going.  I didn't even stay with him at the vet's office; I left him there, sitting meekly in the waiting room, waiting his turn all by himself, but I was crying so hard that I couldn't say much to the assistant at the desk.

I don't know how many days I cried after that.  Larry called the vet's office the next day to see if they still had Pablo and to see if we could undo our directions.  No, they said, they don't hold those animals for a very long time.  But I knew that Pablo was gone before Larry called.  On the evening of the day I took Pablo to meet his fate, as I was washing dishes and looking out our kitchen window, I had the sense of Pablo being there, walking around the field behind our house.  I did not see him; I felt him as though he had returned to say good bye.

It has been nearly 20 years, and I still think about Pablo.  I can feel what it was like to have him sit close by me on our porch steps and to feel his thick fur against my check when I hugged him.  The scriptures are not clear about what happens to animals when they die, but Pablo was actually an innocent soul just doing what dogs are intended to do.  In my heart I cannot believe that Pablo's spirit or the spirit of any of our other dogs ends when they pass.  I don't claim to know everything, but I will always remember Pablo.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


In case you haven't heard, the Food and Drug Administration announced this week that they are asking companies that produce food to voluntarily reduce the amount of salt added to processed food.  The second part of that story is that if companies do not reduce sodium in their products voluntarily, the FDA stands ready to  require the amount of salt to be reduced.  I guess the FDA has not heard about the boxes of salt available for sale on the bottom shelf in the spice aisle at Food City.

The FDA theorizes that if all of our processed food has steadily falling amounts of sodium, in a generation or two we will suddenly realize that, "Hey!  This can of soup tastes great!" even if there is only one grain of salt in it.  I tried some "healthy" soup as a lunch option once when I was still working.  It was the kind of soup that not only doesn't hurt your health, it fortifies your immunity and enables the consumer to re-grow diseased organs.  I took one taste and gagged.  I think the main ingredient (chicken?  beans?  lettuce?  it was hard to tell) was not something found in nature.  It smelled so bad that I threw it in the trash can in the hall way to keep the stink out of my office and went to the snack bar where I purchased a cheeseburger on a grilled bun.

Since ancient times salt has been a commodity that drives entire economies.  It was so important during the Civil War that battles were fought over salt production facilities.  Humans need salt to survive.

But now the FDA knows better. We cannot be trusted to cook our own food. When the time comes that the voluntary reduction procedures don't work, and the FDA must regulate the availability of salt to protect us all, the price of a pound of salt will be so expensive that Mexican gangs will sneak kilo-sized bundles of salt across the border and sell it in baggies to trembling chefs in dark alleys.

Will it come to the point that if you use a salt shaker, you're breaking the law?  That would make life at my house difficult.  We eat from the four food groups every day:  salt, fat, sugar, and caffeine.  I think that we would eat grilled possum liver if it had enough salt on it.