“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

A Remembrance

Today, the 10th anniversary of the horrendous Sept. 11, 2001, airline hijackers’ destruction of New York’s World Trade Center Towers, Washington’s Pentagon, and their failed third attempt thwarted by the heroic efforts of the passengers on the airliner, we remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost to such insane fanaticism. We remember where we were and what we were doing. We praise the efforts of all the first responders and other heroes who helped save many lives.

Let us also take time to look into tonight’s sky and the beautiful September full moon. Maybe there is balance in the Universe. I hope for that, as well as the ability to keep moving forward away from 9/11/01.

Several home projects are luring me away from Spittin’ Grits. I feel the need to get them done. I will therefore be the Wayward Blogger for a while. I hope to return by October 1. I hope you will bear with me and also return.

23.5 Degrees

Oh, the words we eat. And eat. And eat.

A hungry friend at a Juneau salmon bake on Gold Creek.

It must be sometime in the recent past (because I remember it) that I last said, “Me, on a cruise to Alaska? Never. I go to Alaska to get out in it. You can’t get out in it on a cruise.”
If words were delectable, life for me would have been a gourmet feast. Yes, I ate the words and went on a wonderful cruise up Alaska’s Inside Passage. The food was delectable, the service unbeatable, and the ship a floating resort.

Every night a gourmet feast on The Radiance of the Seas, a floating 13-story resort.

Looking down at the main lobby bar from the 7th floor of the ship.

If you want to see Alaska’s Inside Passage, which has no roads and no rail lines from one stop to the next, you’re going to have to go by water; unless you have your own float plane, you need to take the Alaska ferry or a cruise. If you’re young and adventurous, you can take a sleeping bag and sleep on the deck of the ferry. Then when it drops you off in Skagway or Haines, you’re on your own.
Take the cruise.

The Radiance of the Seas docked at Icy Strait’s Tlingit community Hoonah.

Why see the Inside Passage in particular? Because Alaska’s southeastern “panhandle” is different from the other FIVE Alaskas. Yes, Alaska is big enough to have six huge sections that are all unlike each other.

The other five are the Gulf Coast (south central), including Anchorage, the Kenai peninsula and Seward, and Prince William Sound; the south western Peninsula and Aleutian Chain, which reaches out some 1,500 miles toward Asia and is the boundary between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea; the Bering Sea coast, which is a relatively harsh, sparsely populated, cold and windy flatland; the Great Interior, the vast land (almost 170,000 square miles) between the Brooks Range on the north – the entrance to the Arctic – and the Alaska Range to the south, including Denali, Fairbanks, the Yukon River, and tundra, lots of tundra; and finally, the Arctic, from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean, before going to which, I suggest you read John McFee’s Coming into the Country and bone up on your courage.

Rule One
In all six sections, there’s only one rule: In Alaska, Nature rules. Period. Break that rule at your own peril. Alaska is a land of extremes that range from incomparable beauty to dangerous hostility. It is all light and all dark -- because of the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth on its axis.

In the summer, Alaska looks the Sun in the eye; in winter, the land can be as dark as blindness. Our ship, Radiance of the Seas, cruised us to Seward just in time to get to Anchorage for the nearly 24-hour daylight of the summer solstice. Alaskans will tell you that by the end of the summer, they are very tired.

Susitna, “The Sleeping Lady,” as seen from an Anchorage hotel, about 2 a.m.

As is true for all of Alaska, the Inside Passage is a gourmet feast for the senses -- in high def. It must be the closeness to the sun or clearness of the atmosphere, but the light that bears down on Alaska, clarifying the colors as if sent through a prism, might burn like a laser were it not for the clouds and rain. On a clear day, each color is saturated, it seems to its limit.
On cloudy rainy days, of which there are many along the Inside Passage, the blue-green backdrop seems to enhance the colors of the small communities built along the coast. Mountain ranges don’t allow these communities any depth, and the streets of some are built on pilings over the water.

Above: Juneau (top) and Ketchikan,  where the coast road is built on pilings over the water.

Not only is the Inside Passage different from the other Alaskas, the views along the passage change, gradually transforming from a softness at the southern end, including Ketchikan, to a majestic, rugged beauty at the northern end, including Yukatat, Hubbard Glacier, Prince William Sound, and Seward.

Hubbard Glacier in Disenchantment Bay.
I remembered James A. Michener’s description of the birth and death of glaciers in his 1988 novel Alaska. I tracked it down:
If the valley down which the glacier came ended at the shoreline, the towering face of ice would come right to the edge of the ocean, where in due time, fragments of the glacier, sometimes as big as cathedrals, sometimes bigger, would break away with resounding cracks that would reverberate through the air for many miles as the resulting iceberg crashed into the ocean, where it would ride as an independent entity for months and even decades. Then it became a thing of majestic beauty, with sunlight glistening on its towering spires, with waves playing about its feet, and with birds saluting it as they sped by.

Hubbard Glacier, closer.

Different cruise lines may choose different port stops along the Passage. Most will include Ketchikan at the southern end.

Ketchikan’s hillside community.

Other possible stops include one on Prince of Wales Island, then the communities of Wrangel, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Hoonah on Icy Strait, Gustavas, and Seward. Most will cruise near a powerful glacier. Once the ship exits through Icy Strait, it leaves the relative safety of the fjords and is in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, where the temperature can drop from around 65 degrees Fahrenheit in June/July to 5 or 10 degrees less (or more, depending on whether the sun is out or behind clouds). Alongside a glacier, it is cold, really cold.

All the beauty belies that lying in wait underneath is a dangerous harshness. The few people who live along the Passage know not to break Nature’s rules; they learn to live with the beauty, the land, the waters and wildlife, as well as with awareness of the dangers.

Hoonah, a fish packing community, is home for native Tlingits, who know how to live with Alaska’s harshness.

See more photos of the Radiance of the Seas and of the Inside Passage here.

Grieving with a Classmate

Anchorage High School 1961 classmate Dave Barnett and his wife Diane have suffered an unspeakable loss, and sadness hovers so thick, I feel I can barely breathe. On Saturday, July 30, a mid-air collision of two float planes over Anchorage took the lives of their daughter, her husband, and their two children.

The wake will be held tomorrow and the visitation and memorial service will be held Friday.
Dave and Diane were among our classmates who took the cruise up the Inside Passage, having flown out from Anchorage to Vancouver to board the ship and return to Anchorage for the 50th reunion; I was able to spend time getting reacquainted. I am simply unable to know what to say or do that would convey my wish to offer comfort at a horrific time like this.

May their daughter Hetty, her husband Corey, and their two children rest in peace. May Dave and Diane find some way, through faith, family, and friends, to survive this awful loss. They are in my mind and heart.

Drop Dead Denial

My daughter has just been transported from the county jail, where she has been for nearly a year, to Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, to begin her 20-year sentence imposed for her drug-related crimes.

The Norwegian right-wing Christian extremist who killed nearly 70 young people at a Youth Camp near Oslo is looking at a 21-year sentence.

Tutwiler is a hell hole by anyone’s standards. Julia Tutwiler, an Alabama heroine, would be horrified and repulsed by what Alabamians have allowed to happen and by what Americans have allowed to happen in today’s prisons, while believing they aren’t paying for it.

How do I feel about my daughter’s imprisonment, regardless of how warped the sentencing is?


Why? How could I be relieved? Amy Winehouse. I know what dead is.

I also know that drug addiction is a fatal disease. Americans – huge numbers of them – continue their denial of this fact, despite a huge body of evidence to the contrary. Medical and biological evidence is clear: addition is a disease.

This fact is NOT the same thing as saying, “Calling addition a disease gives addicts a free ride. They don’t have to take responsibility for what they do.”

Addicts don’t have a free ride. Look at Amy Winehouse, the most recent celebrity to die from addiction.

Weird Denial
Denial is a hard, hard concept, one that is difficult to get your mind around. How can you be in denial if you know you’re in denial? Denial is believing you are NOT in denial, that what you think or feel or choose to believe is real, true, correct, accurate. Whatever evidence to the contrary is presented, denial will insist on denying the evidence. How totally weird.

To get out of denial is tantamount to confronting difficult truths, admitting you are wrong. Humans don’t want to do this confronting thing. It is embarrassing; it hurts too bad; it’s a life changer. And it reveals the denier as the worst, most hurtful kind of liar – one who lies to oneself, usually for self-protection, to avoid hurt. Who can fault them?

I can.

Denial works on an individual level and on a societal level. The worst part about denial is that it doesn’t work – not for the short term and not for the long term. There is way too much collateral damage.

Americans are in denial about America’s and its citizens' roles in the current Drug War and how we are enabling the Mexican cartels to do their unspeakable crimes. America supplies the guns. Americans are the highest users of drugs.

Not to believe this, despite all the evidence, is to be in denial.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, who has been a medical director for rehab clinics and who has become a television face, now has a program on Headline News at 9 p.m. (eastern time); he recently reacted to an English policeman’s cautioning people not to speculate on the causes of Amy Winehouse’s death. He took issue with that stance.

He calls the addiction the real cause of death, whether she died of an overdose, alcohol withdrawal, a heart attack or whatever might be reported as the “primary cause.” “Twenty-seven-year-olds don’t just die,” he says.

Too few people know that withdrawing from most drugs won’t kill you, although addicts often wish they were dead during withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is different. It can kill. Alcoholics in treatment are withdrawn (detoxed) slowly. Long-term alcoholics who quit drinking abruptly and are not under a doctor’s care can die from the physical effects of the withdrawal when it turns into delirium, tremors, and seizures. The body’s vital functions can simply quit.

So if Amy Winehouse died from abrupt withdrawal from alcohol, as her family appears to think happened, then the addiction to alcohol was the bottom-line cause.

Biology 101
In his 2003 book Cracked: Putting Broken Lives Together Again, Dr. Drew (as he is known) explains the biology to a group of addicts in treatment:
“Why are you addicted? The simple answer is that some people are configured biologically in such a way to respond very positively to substances. . . . What makes you an addict is primarily a change in a tiny region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
“This region of your brain has started to mistake the chemical message of survival with the message delivered by drugs. The drive to use becomes confused with the drive to survive. . . . These drives demand gratification with the same life-or-death intensity as taking a breath.”
Neurobiology and brain research more than supports these statements. Not to accept Dr. Drew’s information is to be in denial.

If I want my daughter to live, then I want her in prison. If she were to get back out on the streets, she would die. There’s no denial of death.

Peer Pressure Becomes You: My Thank You Note

In a recent Time magazine article about high school experiences, Annie Murphy Paul quoted Kurt Vonnegut’s retelling what a classmate said about life:
“You all of a sudden realize that you are being ruled by people you went to high school with. . .You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school.”

I laughed out loud, because I had just gotten back from my 50th high school reunion.

At Anchorage High School, where I graduated in 1961, I had the English teacher whose reputation preceded him, Mr. Crouch, Wendell Crouch, and I’m thankful I had him. He made us write a lot, and he graded it all. I walked softly and did what he assigned.

One paper I kept for decades, but I can’t find it now. In a lapse, I cleaned up, and I think I finally threw it away. I wish I could remember his wry comments on it, but I think I’ve repressed it. Before I admit what I’m going to reveal about that paper, let me say that because of Mr. Crouch, I placed in a high school poetry contest. I re-read the poem, and believe me, it’s abysmal. High schoolers are, among a lot of things, pretty maudlin, silly creatures. I’m not reprinting it.

The paper I wrote was on friendship; the assignment may have been to write on Aristotle’s ideas about friendship. In any case, that was the angle I took, even though I can’t remember the whole title.
But do I ever remember the first part of the title.

It went, “Fiendship: . . .” I don’t remember the words following the colon. And let me admit here that not once did I ever type the word as anything else but “fiendship.” It was NOT a Freudian slip, only bad, consistent typos, over and over and over.

Unsurprisingly Aristotle has a lot to say about friendship, but most of it now seems very high-minded; his philosophical musings, however, explain why “Fiendship” wasn’t a Freudian slip. A nice, quotable, thing he says in Nicomachaen Ethics asserts that it is necessary for us to have friends, “for without friends no one would choose to live. . . .” He then says, “. . . we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends. . . .”

Yes, I was very lucky to have had a lot of friends – not fiends – in high school. And, no, I don’t sit around reading Aristotle.

Mystery Solved
During the two-year run-up to the June 17, 2011, 50th Reunion, I worked electronically, -- as did others -- with committee members living in Anchorage and cities across the U.S. Along the way I re-friended some classmates, got re-acquainted with classmates I had known less well, and made new friends with others I had not known. I cruised up the Inside Passage with classmates who had been good friends in high school but whom I had not seen in decades, as well as with little- or not-known classmates.

Why was it so easy to love reconnecting with these long-ago classmates? We hugged, kissed, laughed, and made toasts together; all the while I wondered if they really recognized me. How could they? I didn’t recognize myself.

Toasting ourselves on the cruise ship

That question kept niggling at my mind. What’s the connection with classmates? What is this lure reunions have, so strong that going to them has created this huge business in America?

The answer stared me in my wrinkled face, the one I hardly knew in the mirror: “Hey, self, it’s the FRIENDS, the friendships, stupid.”

But I kept wondering: What made those friendships so strong, so meaningful? Then I remembered a book I had read when I was searching for some explanations for my daughter’s hideous drug addictions that so affected mine and my family’s lives. I had pulled it off the shelf again when our granddaughter, our daughter’s child, became ours to love and raise and I needed information on child development.
I grabbed it again after the reunion: Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.

In it she very convincingly argues her theory: “that children [elementary and junior high ages] identify with a group consisting of their peers, that they tailor their behavior to the norms of their group, and that groups contrast themselves with other groups and adopt different norms.”

Then, BINGO, in high school, as adolescents, we put all we’ve learned from our little peers to use with our big peers. This is how and when teenagers become themselves, who they are and will be. For good or ill, like it or not.

Your peers, your friends, are your biggest influence; they help form who you are then and become later.

The Way We Were is Now

Her theory certainly explains “peer pressure.” It only follows that it’s wanting to do and to behave and to dress and to think and to feel in ways that are meaningful to and help define your group.

Were we different or unusual? As the AHS Senior Class of 1961, probably. We were a huge, diverse group: children of native-born or first generation Alaskans, of U.S. Air Force or U.S. Army personnel, of civilians working with the military, or of adventurers, entrepreneurs, and fortune-seekers; children of the Cold War living with the very real threat of nuclear attack. The DEW Line (Defense Early Warning system of radars), which was the first line of defense against the Soviet threat, drew many families to the state. Most classmates watched Alaska become the 49th state and perhaps even watched President Dwight D. Eisenhower doff his hat to the crowds at the celebratory parade down 4th Avenue.

This class marked the transition from the comfort of the 1950s to the upheavals to come in the 1960s. We represented the promise of the future for Anchorage and a new state and what each would become. Then we scattered to places all over the globe.

4th Ave. downtown Anchorage, then and now

Unusual or different as individuals? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, we were our very own peer group; together we tried ourselves on to see who we were; we needed to bounce ourselves off each other – our hair, our shoes, our personalities – to grow up. We needed each other during that critical time.

And so, I thank my AHS Senior Class of ’61 classmates, all of them. I thank my close friends, my re-friends, my new friends, and those I haven’t seen since then – all those I shared that time, the 20th reunion, the 30th reunion, and the 50th reunion with. Thank you. Thank you.

The Time article’s author said she was flabbergasted when her high school principal invited her to give a recent commencement address to graduating seniors. I don’t think she had a great time back then.
Amazingly, our 1961 AHS principal, Mr. Joe Montgomery, was able, at 93, to attend our reunion’s sock hop. As he spoke to us from his chair, we all felt how special a moment it was.

AHS 1961 principal Mr. Joe Montgomery, at the 50th Reunion Sock Hop

If Mr. Montgomery were to call and ask me to address a commencement, here’s what I would say to the grads:
“Real life is high school. Don’t be hangin’ around with no un-fun, un-interesting group. There’s too much at stake, like your identity. And wanting to come back to your 50th reunion. Now, throw your caps high, get outta your robes, and get outta here. Thank you.”
Thank you, AHS Senior Class of ’61.

KTVA CBS channel 11 in Anchorage reported on the reunion. View the spot from here; click on the video.

Also on that page is an article I placed in Alaska Airlines Magazine after the AHS Class of ‘61 20th Reunion.


Joanna Leigh has been in costume most of the morning today. She put on her ballet-lessons digs and then put her nightgown on top of her head, hanging it down her back like the long flowing hair she yearns for.
She then says to me, “Mama Jo, look, I have long princess hair. Isn’t it beautiful? Do you like it?”
Well, it’s her Disney princesses nightgown, after all.
Then she announces that she will be doing this performance on the big stage at her recital. “Is that ok?” she asks.
Her ballet recital was a month ago, while I was cruising the Inside Passage. But in my defense, I had been to ALL the practices and dress rehearsals.
I turn my head in order to roll my eyes. Then I say, “Oh, certainly.” Then I have to watch the performance.
A four-year-old’s imagination: What a magical realm. I need to know more about this. Anyone have any ideas?
More Miscellany
At noon or thereabouts, I finally realized why Rocky Raccoon has been showing up at my door looking for food so early in the afternoon instead of sleeping in a tree like other normal nocturnal animals.

I first wrote about Rocky two years ago here.

Today was an eye-opener. Rocky is actually Rocketta, and she’s got babies somewhere nearby. She’s skinny and scruffy looking. So, as humans stay up all night with new babies, she’s having to stay up all day feeding herself in order to nurse her babies.
Sigh. Now I can’t trap and relocate Rocketta.
All the wry responses to my Facebook announcement of this discovery go something like this:
You had better relocate Rocketta AND her babies! What are you going to do when they ALL start knocking on your door?
And, You had better relocate all of them. Baby raccoons are cute.

In Skagway, That Said. . .

So many ways to make a statement and so little space.
Except in Skagway, Alaska, one of my favorite places along the Inside Passage. As the entrance to the Yukon, Skagway makes lots of statements, but two I found special.
First, this, which tells me that the founder of Starbucks is indeed a genius.
Skagway356Starbucks along the Inside Passage

The second one was the Statement Extreme. First, the disclaimer: The views expressed in less than 1,000 words are not necessarily the views of this writer and editor. Then again. . . .
Across from the Yukon White Pass train, this purveyor of bold statements was parked.
The Car.
Parked in Skagway, AK

The Hood.
Adorned roof

The Trunk.
Adorned trunk, close-up
Notice the Starbucks icon on the right above. Clever.

The Fender.

Well, I didn’t say it.
By the way, there’s also a Starbucks in Seward, Alaska, the AHS Class of ‘61 classmates’ last stop of our heavenly Radiance of the Seas cruise of the Inside Passage, where we landed at an abominably early hour to catch the bus to Anchorage for our 50th high school reunion.
I hope that Spittin’ Grits readers won’t tire too quickly of future statements about the Inside Passage cruise and my 50th high school reunion in Anchorage.

Familiar Chant

“We’re Number 1, We’re Number 1!”


What a familiar chant this is around The University of Alabama and in the state: National football championships, national gymnastics championships, and even debate team championships. Fans will yell this even when it’s not close to reality.

Now this chant takes on new meaning.

A reporter for the (Athens, Alabama) News Courier, Kelly Kazek, wrote a story that has been run on Web sites and in news outlets in Alabama and nationally: Alabama, the state, is now No. 1 nationally for the occurrence of EF5 tornadoes, outstripping Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.


According to Kazek’s story, the upgrade of an EF4 April 27, 2011, tornado brings Alabama’s total of the most severe tornadoes to seven, breaking the tie with Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas.

That day was a bad day, not just for Alabama. The Storm Prediction Center’s report on storms for that day prove it; tornadoes are represented by red dots. NOAA’s National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Birmingham posted an assessment of that day: “April Severe Weather Events Set New Tornado Records for Alabama.”


This time, being Number 1 ain’t what we had in mind.

Glittering Catastrophe

I knew I was in trouble before I got home from Anchorage, Alaska, after attending my 50th high school reunion.

I talked to my four-year-old granddaughter, Joanna Leigh, two days before I would get on the plane for the long, long trip home. She said, in the sweetest voice, “Mama Jo, I have a special surprise for you when you get home.”

“You do-o-o-o?” I answered. “I’m so excited to see it. I’ll be home in two sleeps,” I said, trying to reassure her that I would indeed come home.

She needed reassurance. She has separation/abandonment issues from her mother’s disappearance from her life, and I left for Vancouver to pick up the cruise ship worried about how she would deal with my leaving.

So she made me a really special present.

My husband got back on the phone and said loudly, “This is really special.”

Then he whispered, “it’s glitter, not glitter glue,” which, of course, sticks to surfaces. Pure glitter, he meant.

Then he added in a lower whisper, “and it’s everywhere. I’ve tried to get some of it up.”

“Oh, ma gawd,” I thought.

I drug in at nearly midnight last Monday. She was awake and couldn’t wait to show me.

“Oh, ma gawd,” I thought, for real this time.

Today I spent all morning scraping as much as I could into a bowl. Then I vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed, over and over. I vacuumed EVERYTHING: her art table, the crayons, the markers, the paper, the floor, her bed, the lamp, the bottoms of my shoes, my hands, and finally, my own rear end, which sat in the chair covered in glitter. I even vacuumed the ceiling fan for fear that any glitter on the paddles would just get slung, the next time it got turned on, to those few places I didn’t vacuum. 

No Bippity Boppity Boo

A glittering catastrophe. Now I’m nursing my back from vacuuming for two hours.

Life turns on dimes. How fast can you go from being a Queen catered to by everyone on a cruise ship for seven days to a household drudge? In a New York minute. Now I will turn to my pictures, videos, and memories before the whole trip sinks into the vast past and I forget I went.

Afraid that I would hurt her feelings by cleaning up the glitter mess, I took a picture.



Alaska, the Inside Passage, Reunion, and Grits

Special Notes

I am leaving for Alaska via the Inside Passage today, and will try to blog along the way. Why I’m going is discussed in the previous post.

Meanwhile, last year I discovered a wonderful place in Alabama to buy stone ground grits, and I posted a blog about McEwen & Sons Coosa Valley Milling and Hardware Co. In May, they had a fire which destroyed the store part of the operation, but I was relieved to get an e-mail from the owner, Frank McEwen, saying that the mill is in operation and taking orders for grits, polenta, and their other second-to-none products. Go to www.mcewenandsons.com to order.

I have also in past posts suggested that a good way to celebrate July 4th is to serve grits. Why?

Find out here.

Senior Pictures, Pictures of Seniors

Summertime! Water fun, weddings, backyard cookouts, trips to the mountains, fireflies, even noctilucent clouds (which you can find out about at www.spaceweather.com). And graduation, which means U.S. high schools and colleges putting gazillions of seniors out on the streets.

It’s also the season for one of America’s great pastimes – no, not baseball. Reunions.

AHS -Grad-4

Reunions come in all kinds, sizes, and shapes -- like school classes, families, all kinds of military gatherings including fighter pilot aces, athletes celebrating a special win. Name a meaningful past event or cohorts; people will get together.

Reunions are also big business in America and generate tons of summertime spending; I’ll do my part in a few days to stimulate the economy by contributing more than my share to this business segment.

Yet, there’s a major reason to go, a reason based on some little-known research. That secret will be revealed at the end of the post.

AHS Senior Class of ‘61

AHS -Grad-1

I first heard the silly joke, “What’s the difference between senior pictures and pictures of seniors?” when my father told me he was going to his 50th high school reunion. I thought it was way over the top back then. (The answer to that stupid joke will be at the bottom of this post.)

Some people would rather be shot at dawn than have to attend their class reunion.

Well, I’m risking it all and going to mine. In Anchorage. That’s Anchorage, Alaska. By way of the Inside Passage on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, a cruise put together by a few classmates. There will be about 30-plus of us on board. I haven’t seen these classmates in 20 years, since our 30th reunion.

I leave Thursday to get on board. I’ve sent my money in. If I drop dead before next Thursday, well, I won’t live to regret it.

We will join lots of other classmates Friday, June 17, at (West) Anchorage High School, to begin our 50th Reunion. Over the top, alright.

We’ve had a lot of fun working on this Reunion for two years, some of us communicating electronically with the core committee in Anchorage. The work shows in the Web page, at www.ahs61.com.

A few days ago with a temperature here in Tuscaloosa at 101 degrees and my AC merely chugging along, I went to Belk to continue my spending by getting a few things. I couldn’t find them.

“Where are the socks?” I asked a couple of salespeople.

They were speechless, looking at me like I was a mental case. “I’m going to Alaska!” I added.

“Oh! They’re over there,” they replied.

Gravity Happens

Why -- looking like I look, missing all the opportunities for success I’ve missed, feeling totally inferior, not remembering stuff I should remember, having just had “procedures” I don’t want to discuss – why would I put myself through a REUNION? Yes, there’s that secret reason to be revealed at the end. But what about the CONCERNS?

Here’s my take on the CONCERNS:

Many had a tough time in high school. Here’s what I say to that: Who didn’t! We were teenagers. Give me a teenager who didn’t have a tough time and I’ll give you a corpse. Teenagers and psychopaths and sociopaths probably share many personality traits.

Many grownups still feel the sting of real or perceived affronts to their esteem. Here’s what I say to that: Who doesn’t? And let me say right here: If I committed an affront to any of my high school peers, I am most sorry for it. My excuse is that like everyone in high school, I was insane and busy dealing with the affronts aimed at me.

Regarding having suffered from an inferiority complex. Ha! This is what I say to that: I still am. Descartes should have said, “I feel inferior; therefore, I am.”

Many seniors don’t recognize the person in the mirror. I don’t, and I’m sure no one will recognize me. It’s all about gravity, pounds, bad hair color, baldness, wrinkles, dysfunctional knees and sexual prowess, bags, walkers, and whatever else we’ve added to our lives. Here’s what I say to that: It’s true. Most people won’t recognize you anymore than you’ll recognize them.

Get over it; the name tags will be HUGE.

Some will fear scorn for their fuzzy or no “accomplishments.” Here’s what I say to that: As long as we’re breathing, we’ll all continue to have to re-start our lives – for the zillionth time. I just had to re-start mine three years ago when my husband (miraculously, of 40 years) and I petitioned for and adopted our 18-month-old granddaughter.

We ALL remember envying other classmates’ looks, brains, boobs or other endowments, status in the “in crowd,” athletic heroics, scores on the SAT test, and a zillion other things. Here’s what I say to that: I envied Teresa Hanson’s pink Ford Victoria convertible. And Ginger Harris’s confidence. And Tom Kelly’s SAT scores. There, I’ve said it. But I’m going to attend anyway.

No Regrets

So we will come together for our 50th high school reunion – because we CAN. We’ve been given the gift of surviving long enough to have this opportunity. Seeing noctilucent clouds will just be gravy.

Those who will see their close friends, those who didn’t know each other, those who only knew each other as acquaintances – we all share this singular opportunity. All of us shared that one moment when the AHS door opened graduation night for us to begin our journey to adulthood. We all helped each other get to that point, for good or ill.

Senior Prom '61

The AHS Senior Class Prom, 1961. Both the King and Queen, sitting in the chairs, will be at our 50th High School Reunion.

And finally, the main reason, a best kept secret revealed in a New York Times piece two years ago:

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”


As far as we, the AHS Class of ’61, are concerned, there’s NO DIFFERENCE between senior pictures and pictures of seniors.

Ear Popping and Hair Raising in the Operating Room

What do you do if you’re in the operating room, May 22 at 5:41, working on a patient at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, when an F4 tornado hits your town?

St. John's

A view of the devastated interior of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Joplin, MO. More pictures here.

This seems like a stupidly outrageous question. It probably wouldn’t even work as fiction, let alone reality. Except, it happened, an event that answers the outrageous question. Of all the incredible tornado stories to come out of the month-long super tornadoes outbreak, this story stands out, even in the large field of stories of heroism and amazing survival.

As a resident of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which suffered an almost identical day a month ago, April 27, this story is hair-raising and made more so by the fact this all happened to a close friend’s son.

Dr. Dusty Smith, son of Dr. Jay Smith, a dermatologist in Montgomery, Alabama, is an orthopedic surgeon in Joplin. That infamous day, Dusty was performing emergency surgery when St. John’s took a direct hit moments after a staff member said, “My ears are popping.”

Here’s the rest of the story.

This amazing story has lots of facets, some obvious, some less so. But it reminds me the heroic effort that airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made in landing his disabled U.S. Airways airliner into the Hudson River in New York, saving every one of the crew and passengers. A modest man, he credits his experience and training in keeping his cool under such pressure.

Dusty has a few words about the value of good training.

If I could tell the residents of Joplin one thing, it would be that driving through all the devastation even a month later is very hard, very anxiety-ridden, even depressing. I think it will be like this for a long, long time


Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Shocking Vistas

So, what’s next for our city ravaged by the April 27, 2011, Mutant Tornado.

That’s easy: Disaster relief, disaster relief, disaster relief.

Once the National Guard began to open up the hardest hit areas of the city, I went to sites to shoot video; I wasn’t sure why at the time. Now I think it was for two reasons: catharsis and the need to appeal – for some time to come – for disaster relief.

I interviewed several survivors along Crescent Ridge Road and Holt, arguably the hardest hit. Until I went to shoot video, and even though I had been using that road for decades, I had no idea the reason for the name of the road. Almost immediately, the question was answered. Once the Mutant Tornado went through and took almost everything, shocking vistas opened up.

I was standing on a ridge. From that ridge I could see for miles and miles, southwest over devastated Alberta City toward town until the hospital and football stadium finally blocked the view; and northeast all the way over Brookwood to Jim Walter Mine #7, according to one survivor, 35 miles away, until the next ridge blocked the view.

Christmas Future

Tuscaloosa will need all the help it can get for the long haul. The amount of debris, closely equivalent to the amount of debris left at the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack, tells the story. (See the previous post.)

The 5,000 – 7,000 damaged or destroyed structures in the city tell the story. Many, many people are in dire need of the most fundamental supplies – food, shelter, clothes, school supplies, children’s toys, hygiene products – name it.

This need for the most basic supplies will continue well into the future. The clean-up is likely to take a year. Who knows how and when structures and housing will be rebuilt.

Too soon the need will be for Christmas presents for Tuscaloosa’s displaced children.

The Odor

Finally, it was the odor, the stench, on the ridge that drove home to me the extent of the devastation. As far as I know, by the time I shot video (about five days after the tornado), all the human bodies had been found and retrieved, but there could easily have been remains of people whom no one knew to report as missing. The odor was certainly the animals and pets that were killed and covered up by debris.

It was not rotting food. Rotting food alone (which I admit I’ve had in my refrigerator from time to time) does not smell like that. It was bodies.


When I turned onto Crescent Ridge, the scene only hinted at what was to come: broken tree limbs, trees with too few leaves, entire oak trees that have been sawed and piled on the side of the road, twisted road signs, mail boxes in yards, homes with odd lettering and numbering spray-painted on the front, huge root balls of trees sucked up from the ground. Then damaged structures and blue tarps.

Survivors tell their stories about the April 27, 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado

Then the shocking vistas where people and their lives had been. Then some survivors -- the few who were able to stay in their damaged homes or a small number of people standing dazed on what used to be their property.

Then I met one man, who pointed out Jim Walter Mine #7 in the far distance, some family members, and a mother dog with about five puppies; they are living under an open-type tent and in his storm shelter, about 12-feet below ground, which saved their lives. There was nothing left on the cement slab that was his front porch, living room, and house. They were cooking on a grill.

For some distance, there was a strange stillness up there, broken only by birds’ chirpings and songs. Then As I neared the area of a direct hit, I began to hear all the heavy equipment working to bulldoze or pick up debris into piles of like materials. Cars and trucks, drain gutters, bikes and other metal stuff in a pile. Tires and man-made materials in piles. Pieces of wood and housing materials in a pile. Huge tree trunks and large branches in a pile. Root balls in a pile. Unidentifiable stuff in piles. Ice cream and popsicle trucks. Toys. What was left of swimming pools, filled with trees and belongings. Lone cement stair steps leading to nothing.

I saw this for miles until the scene became countryside with an odd wide path cut out where whole forests had been standing five days before.

Finally the remains of my favorite gardening nursery. And then Holt Elementary School. All gone.

Disaster Relief

Tuscaloosa will need all the help it can get for the long haul. And frankly, the best, most needed, donation is good ole MONEY. Following are some agencies, churches, and places where donations and money can be made, and there are many more besides these.

Agencies and Organizations

The United Way of West Alabama disaster donations

The Salvation Army of Tuscaloosa, and here, disaster relief; 1-800-SAL-ARMY

The Red Cross of Tuscaloosa, Disaster Online Newsroom; 1-800-REDCROSS

Tuscaloosa Disaster Relief Fund

Tuscaloosa Emergency Services, 205-758-5535

Samaritan’s Purse

West Alabama Chamber Foundation, which you can donate to through Joe Namath’s “Broadway Joe” site.

Aid for Tuscaloosa’s three elementary schools destroyed by the tornado

Catholic Social Services Tuscaloosa, 205-759-0168


St. Mark United Methodist Church, 2605 Skyland Blvd. E., 205-553-4929

Hargrove Road Memorial United Methodist Church, 1812 Hargrove Rd. E., 205-553-7271

Woodland Forrest Baptist Church, 6701 Hargrove Rd. E., 205-553-1494

Church of the Nazarene, Hillcrest, 340 Patriot Pkwy., 205-758-3297

I will post these disaster relief agencies and sites on and off on Spittin’ Grits for months to come. It’s what I can do for my city.

Tornado Morphing

Tornadoes don’t have names, as Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific hurricanes do. April 27, 2011, probably explains why: There aren’t enough names, and names are too nice for tornadoes of that magnitude. That day, in Alabama alone, at least 38 twisters ripped up more than 1,000 miles of cities, towns, and countryside, killing nearly 240 people and countless animals; injuries are in the thousands. The state isn’t even 1,000 miles long.

But I have a name for the monster that devastated Tuscaloosa – Mutant.

Images of the mutant thing abound. Just search “Tuscaloosa tornado.”

Even from its inception southwest of the Tuscaloosa city limits, it was almost a mile wide; it had tentacles; it swallowed another twister or two to enlarge itself. Structures and things in its path that should have impacted its momentum seemed to feed it. It was a singular presence, without the usual rain wall or extended blackness to disguise it. The countryside forests and woods, the cityscape, the green spaces – none of these hid it from view. It just kept coming and coming and coming. Television meteorologists lost their composure and were all but screaming for everyone to take cover.

The world saw the images of the Mutant’s destruction for days afterwards. President Obama, as well as some entertainers, came in person. Obama’s shock was visible. “I’ve got to say, I've never seen destruction like this,” he said.

The Mutant directly and significantly affected about a quarter of the city’s residents. It destroyed or severely damaged at least 5,000 buildings in the city. Ironically, it destroyed Tuscaloosa’s Emergency Operations Center, as well as the Salvation Army building, Red Cross building, police station and fire station buildings and vehicles, the city’s garbage trucks, a water treatment operation, several schools, and on and on and on. The clean-up will likely cost more than $100 million.

The emotional toll is not countable.

Normal Destruction

All this is simply numbers. Here’s another: It has created somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million cubic yards of debris.

Who, other than experts, knew that debris is measured in cubic yards or in tons? Ordinarily, who cares? Certainly not me. So I tried to get some perspective on this kind of meaningless number.

First, our Tax Day Tornado less than two weeks earlier, which I reported in the April 20 post, created about 15,000 cubic yards of debris. That one was sort of a normal tornado, so that otherwise meaningless number may be kind of “normal” for tornadoes. Frankly, those numbers still didn’t really mean anything.

So I tried to find out how many cubic yards of debris were created from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and from hurricane Katrina 2005. What I found was likely “ballpark” figures, as totals were different in different sources.

Mutant Destruction

Many of us remember the images. From those memories, we can make meaningless numbers more real.

One report: “Even though it was a terrible site, the P&J team didn’t feel the effort would be insurmountable. They estimated that Ground Zero looked to have about a million cubic yards of debris; we had handled four times that much following Hurricane Andrew.”

Another: “By comparison, the disaster debris generated after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City was approximately 1.4 million tons (2.8 million CY).”

Finally: “He cut short critics of the slow hurricane relief effort by offering statistics on the magnitude of the disaster. While the destruction of the World Trade Center created 1 million cubic yards of debris in New York, he said, hurricanes Katrina and Rita created 45 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi alone.”

These numbers tell us that the Tuscaloosa debris is comparable to the debris from the destroyed World Trade Center. Discovering this was shocking.

For several reasons, I spent time, after the National Guard opened the worst affected areas, shooting video, some of which I will edit and put on YouTube. What I saw and what survivors told me was emotionally draining. I will deal with their stories in upcoming posts.

Suffice it to say right now that the Mutant did one more thing besides destroying and killing: it created new and shocking vistas. All that debris used to be something; it’s now gone, leaving huge open spaces where people, pets, trees, gardens, vehicles, swimming pools, and ordinary life used to be.


How It Becomes Personal

We see and can get glued to the ravages of a disaster. The images are often horrendous. Sometimes we’re thankful, even relieved, when another news story replaces the disaster.

But here’s how a major disaster becomes all too personal:

As the monster tornado entered the city, my husband and I were watching James Spann at ABC 33-40 in Birmingham who was showing it on the tower cam. It was so huge that Spann lost his composure. Then we grabbed our dog Maggie and dove into our laundry room in the center of our house.

Later that evening I got a text from a young woman who helps me with Joanna Leigh on weekends. She was on the balcony of the Links apartment complex in south Tuscaloosa, only a short distance from where the tornado entered the city limits. She took this photo, then ran for the bathroom.


The photographer later understood how dangerous it could have been.

Early Thursday morning, when I knew there had been massive damage in the city but knew little else, my son, who had been watching the news from Texas and keeping us informed, called extremely upset. He had just learned that a friend of his whom he had played football with at The University of Alabama had found out about 1 a.m. that his daughter had been killed by the tornado. I think I must have caved. I packed up Joanna Leigh and myself and left for Montgomery where I had family and friends. I knew I’d be able to get gas on the way out.

While I was there, a friend sent me a picture of the entrance to Windsor Drive.

I lived for 25 years on Windsor Drive in the Alberta City area of Tuscaloosa. Alberta City was where President Obama walked to see the damage up close, and it was so ravaged by the April 27 tornado that I could not recognize where in Alberta City he walked. Even a week later we are still disallowed to enter that area.

Those who have never seen Windsor Drive might not know from the picture how extensive the damage is, but the picture bears no resemblance to the neighborhood entrance I knew so well. The picture (below) was the first indication of how hard it would be to come home and see the damage with my eyes.


The entrance to Windsor Drive in Tuscaloosa

I then got an e-mail from a student friend of mine with a link to a video he had put together of what remained of his condo. I have had dinner at that condo. He was in a basement at a friend’s house, but his brother was on the condo’s kitchen floor with a metal pot on his head when it went over and sucked out nearly everything.

Then my first cousin called his mother (my aunt) in Montgomery; I was sitting there and he recounted his encounter with the tornado. I will post his account later, with unpublished pictures.

At some point I knew I had to return home and face what had happened.

Tuscaloosa is a small city of fewer than 100,000. Nothing that the tornado hit is far enough away from anyone to allow for distancing themselves from the damage. We will all have to drive through it for years to come.

And driving through some of it was the big step I had to take. I took video. Yet I know it is only a small bit of what is out there to have to see soon. The city is slowly opening up closed areas like Alberta City.

The day I shot video, May 3, was unseasonably cold and rainy, like a December day. The video footage I put together is on streets I drive to get anywhere, including picking up Joanna Leigh from her school. I will see it over and over and over.

On the radio in the background is WTXT, programming converted to call-ins telling what they need or volunteers telling what they have available and where. “You’re on the phone. How can we help you?” said the announcers over and over.

One woman from the decimated Cedar Crest area was expressing her gratitude for all the help. She then said that her cat, Peanut Butter, was still missing and that she believed she would find her. She asked that people let her know if they sighted a tortoise-shell cat with a brown blob on its head that looked like peanut butter.

The first half of the video shows the intersection of two main arteries serving the city: 15th Street (east-west) and McFarland Boulevard, Highway 82, (north-south); I was driving north on McFarland and then back. Cozy landmarks, like Hobby Lobby, Big Lots, Tide Clean, Krispy Kreme, and many, many others are debris that will be loaded on dump trucks.

The second half is the route home from Joanna Leigh’s school, and you can hear her voice in the background: from 15th Street (west of the main intersection) and turning south onto Hackberry/Hargrove Road, then making my way back to 15th Street to turn east and go home.

On the Hargrove Road segment, you see Wood Manor, where my friend Nathan’s condo was; a little way up, you can look northeast and see the hospital several miles away, something I never imagined. There’s nothing to block the view now.

Video shot May 3, 2011

Emotional recovery will take a lot longer than the other kinds.

If there is any doubt what kind of monster could have done this damage, watch Mike Wilhelm’s raw footage on YouTube or here:


Notice the monster’s tentacles reaching out and down.

Facing It

Right now, on May 2 in Alabama, it is 50 degrees and expected to fall into the low 40s. The strange temperature will likely break records for May 2-3. And thousands are without power, homeless, in damaged houses, in shelters, with no warm clothes.

I knew I had to face it, the devastation. I had to go to the pharmacy across the river, as my regular one in the Alberta City area of Tuscaloosa is inaccessible. Then I had to pick up Joanna Leigh at her school, very near the football stadium on The University of Alabama campus.

I took my video camera. I thought that trying to take video might distract me from the awful sight I knew I would see. I hope to post the video tomorrow or the next day.

When I rounded the curve on Hargrove Road heading east, I looked toward my friend Nathan’s condo. It was gone. I wanted to throw up.

From Hargrove road, I could see the hospital. That should have been impossible, against the laws of physics or something, but there it was, with nothing to block the view.

Tomorrow will be one week since the horrendous tornado that has torn our town into this disaster area. In places it looks like Lebanon looked at its low point.

And it will go down to 43 degrees tonight. In May, in Alabama. That’s supposed to be nearly impossible, too.

At home

Came home from Montgomery. Water may be usable; trying to confirm.

Future posts will include my cousin's FIRST- HAND account and his pictures.

I still have one huge step to take: to see this devastation with my eyes. I expect it will be hard.

More when possible.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


Massive damage

The monster tornado that formed south of Tuscaloosa did massive damage. Deaths. No electricity.
More when possible.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Cinderella’s Plastic Slippers

Broken Up, Cracking Up

Tiresome. Insufferable.

Parent’s and grandparents’ droning, droning, droning, on and on, about their children’s/grandchildren’s every habit, look, interest, action, word. . . . It’s right up there with the dreaded Christmas letter from “friends.”

December 25

Dearest One of my Piles and Piles of Friends:

Once again I'm happy to report that we are all blissful, nothing has gone or can go wrong, we're all extremely sane and rich, and all my children have been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

The merriest of Christmases, love to all, and so sad about your lives.

Your close friend (remember, we met in South Dakota).

So, indulge me.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself completely incapacitated from a serious flare-up from a chronic back condition, which includes bulging disks. At first I lay in the bed crying, not so much from pain as from fear.

Becoming incapacitated and unable to tend to our four-year-old granddaughter Joanna Leigh is plainly one of my worst nightmares.

I called Martha, boo-hoo-hoo-ing. “Martha,” I cried, “what am I going to do????” Sob. “I know you don’t want to do this, but I have to get some help. Will you please come over?” Sob.

Martha has been helping me keep house, paint cabinets, steam clean rugs, trim shrubs, you name it, for a decade. She has been in Joanna Leigh’s life since the beginning, and Joanna Leigh loves her second only to Teddy.

She came.

On one of the days as I lay hurting, Joanna Leigh got some money off the table next to my bed. She pointed her finger at me and said, “Mama Jo, you need to share your money.”

I said, “Honey, it’s really Martha’s money. You need to go tell Martha that SHE needs to share her money.”

She turned on her heels. “Harumph.”

Suddenly, from the other side of the house I heard Martha laughing so hard, she was hollering. It got louder.

I called to her; she came into my room to tell me what was so funny.

“You won’t believe what this child has told me now. She came to tell me that I needed to share my money. I told her I can’t share my money. I patted my pockets and told her, ‘I’m broke!’ She looked at me, pointed her finger, and said. . . .”

She burst out laughing again.

“She said, ‘You are NOT broke. You are stuck together and you need to share your money’.”


The Pink Car Driver Performance

Some readers may remember the Christmas Confessional post, confessing that my husband and I totally caved on the Pink Car for Christmas.

Getting this video last weekend made it all ok.


Joanna Leigh, Easter weekend 2011


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