About Me

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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Cocoa Beach Journal - Entry III

The Hippies of Cocoa Village

I spent the afternoon meandering around Historic Cocoa Village. Ten years or so ago, this portion of the Cocoa Beach area was renovated and now hosts a few blocks of restored buildings newly inhabited by mom and pop stores, antique shops, coffee houses, art galleries, and restaurants. The buildings are pink and white and yellow with stucco walls and Spanish style architecture. Palm trees shade the sidewalks. You will not find an Applebee’s or a Starbucks here, thank God. Tourists stroll around from shop to shop sipping on smoothies or licking ice cream cones. Venders on the street sell fresh watermelons and peaches. A few locals can be found reading newspapers and drinking coffee on tables by the streets. The village sits by a beautiful park right on the Intercoastal Waterway.

Even more colorful than the buildings are the owners of the little shops. I hesitate to call them all hippies but, well, most of these proprietors can probably roll a serious fatty. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with hippies; they make the world a more interesting place. If not for hippies, where would we go to drink ice mochas and eat organic sandwiches on flatbread that are heated in stone ovens while staring at local art and listening to James Taylor? You won’t find any right-wingers running joints like that. They don’t want organic sandwiches; they want to use coupons at Subway. Hippies can come in many forms (whenever I get around to it, I intend to write a treatise on the Appalachian hippy – a breed unto itself). Some hippies are highly intelligent, thoughtful people, some are annoying and far too baked for their own good, and some of them just look like they need a lengthy bath. But I love their music and I love it when they inhabit small communities like this one. Here are a few of the “hippies” of Cocoa Village:

The first is a guy named Tom who runs a store called Ventana al Mundo (I’m not sure what that means but I think it may be Spanish for “pottery and other artsy crap”). Tom sells handmade crafts imported from Central and South America and, to be honest, some of it is very impressive. Tom is the type of guy who uses his hands the entire time he talks. Leaning back into the chair behind the cashier’s desk he spoke to me at length about the history of Cocoa Beach and told me tales of traveling to villages in Ecuador and Peru looking for nuggets of art to sell in his store. He tells me that he doesn't settle on crafts from a wholesaler in Cancun and I believe him. The interesting thing about the store is how each piece of art has a story. Point to something on the wall or a shelve and Tom is more than happy to tell you about how he found the piece, what small town or village he was in, who he bought it from, and what the weather was like that day. You can check out his shop at http://www.ventanaimports.com/.

There were others to be found. Nestled in between a gift shop and a seemingly out of place bar and grill. I found and small art gallery ran by an old man with long, gray hair, scraggly T-shirt, and sandals. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss it. The gallery sits back behind several flower bushes and tree and a stone path takes you to this tiny art studio. The guy told me that he used to teach art at a small college in California during the seventies. Since then, he moved to Cocoa Beach, became a scuba diver and makes clay sculptures of local marine life. The gallery is filled with well crafted renditions of sea turtles, grouper, and the like. His work station was also in the gallery and he let me take a look at his current project, a local bird, but I forget the name of the species. I had the feeling that he may have lived in a back room of the workshop/gallery. His name was Harry and on a wood sign outside his ship there is a sign which literally read, “Harry the Potter.” Cute.

I was surprised to find that the Florida Historical Society houses its headquarters and manuscript collections in Cocoa Village. The head archivist is Debra Wynne, an energetic woman who evidently doesn’t get many visitors. She doesn’t quite qualify as a full-fledged hippy (maybe she had retired from a “hippy period” in her youth) but she certainly fits in around there. "Everybody around here thinks we are a museum," she complained. Debra also lamented the fact that the Society doesn’t get any state funding. Florida politicians, she says, have no interest in pursuing state history and will not hesitate to tear down historic houses in order to make room for more condos. I told her about the fight in West Virginia over historic Blair Mountain and how the coal operators (and those in power funded by them) treat Appalachian history with the same respect that some Florida real estate developers and politicians do. But Debra’s problems go deeper. At least in West Virginia there is a growing awareness about local history and more professors are involved in preservation and research. In Florida, again, according to the archivist, the state’s three largest universities fail to give the Historical Society any real support. This is tragic, because the archives are filled with rich collections – some even dating back to the 1500s. A young historian or grad student could easily make a career out of the collections in this place. Even though my knowledge of Florida history is rather rudimentary I’m thinking of becoming a member of the society. I would’ve loved to have had a few days to rummage through some of their material. The society’s website is http://www.florida-historical-soc.org/.

The next time I visit Cocoa Beach I definitely plan on a return visit to the Village. The hippies alone were enough to keep me entertained for the afternoon. Not to mention I found a killer pizza place called Ryan’s. Their meat-lover’s is great. In the final analysis, my only real complaint with Cocoa Village was the fact that all the shops (not including the restaurants) close down at five o’clock sharp. Who knows? Perhaps that is the departure time for the Pineapple Express.
Taken from my personal journal - July 23, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Corn Day

Today was Corn Day. For those of you who happen to wander across this blog, I'm sure “Corn Day” has no meaning for you. Some of you may have never even treaded through a cornfield. For the majority of my life, however, Corn Day has been a day to dread. Every year on the first week of August my family either purchases or harvests corn and stores it so that it may be consumed over the course of the next nine months or so. The day entails shucking, picking the silk off the ears, carrying numerous trash bins full of husks and corn cobs into the woods and dumping them (the forest animals will eat well tonight), boiling the ears, cutting the corn off the ears, putting the corn into plastic bags, and freezing them. Today my family stored 45 dozen ears of corn in this fashion. The process took a little over twelve hours.

This was my first Corn Day in nearly a decade. For the last seven years I have lived in Morgantown, West Virginia, teaching at West Virginia University and getting a Ph.D. in history. Recently, I moved back to southern West Virginia, near where I was raised, to teach at a new college and therefore, for the first time in a long time, am able to enjoy the bountiful fruits of Corn Day. I am many things, dear reader; a farmer is not one of them. You can guess, therefore, that I began the day less than enthusiastic.

It all started around ten in the morning, when I accompanied my mother down some country road. I’m not talking about the kind of country road that took John Denver home to the place where he belonged (I’ve always hated that song, by the way. It’s not even about West Virginia, but western Virginia). I’m talking about a real country road. It starts out as a two lane, winds around the hills alongside a creek until it becomes a one lane, twists and bends some more until it becomes a gravel road, then your car bumps and trudges a bit until the road is just dirt. There are trailers beside the creek with old folks sitting on their porches giving you suspicious looks as you pass by. There is trash on the creek bank and you wonder where it all comes from. To put it mildly, the pizza delivery boy has never made his way out this far. For me, it’s stunning. I have lived in a college town for a while now and I haven’t been around rural poverty for some time. Even though I grew up around it, I failed to notice it much. I was simply used to it. When you are away from it for years and return to it, the poverty hits you like a slap in the face. Sure, there is poverty everywhere, but to see it all around the community of my youth is depressing.

We eventually make our way to a small farm (I posted a pic of it above) where we purchase the corn for $3.25 a dozen. Not too bad. The farm is run by an elderly couple and a few of their relatives. They are all over sixty. In fact, as we are loading the corn, I look around at the other folks buying corn and I am the youngest person there by at least twenty five years. The matriarch of the farm smiles at me and tells me that she doesn’t see many “youngsters like me around.” The sad truth then dawns on me. I am witnessing a dying scene in Appalachia. The couple’s children have all left the farm and even the state for different careers. There is no one to take over the crops when the couple dies, and both of them are nearly seventy. In a couple of decades you will not be able to buy corn or beans or strawberries from small farmers around here. There won’t be any. At least not in West Virginia. My children, should I ever have any, may only be able to get their corn at Wal-Mart. Now that’s another depressing thought. I don't remember Corn Day being this sad.

The rest of the day was tough and long. I’m tired even as I write this. But I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the matter. You see, as our society becomes increasingly more industrial, it is not merely the independent farmers that are the endangered species, but communal events like Corn Day will also soon be gone. My entire family is always involved in this event - from my brothers-in-law to my parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews. Sometimes my uncles and aunts are there. As a kid I resented Corn Day because of all the work. I would guess that a lot of kids resent working in or around farms, which is why many of them leave. But living a fair distance away from family for many years has given me a deeper appreciation for the day. It is about more than having home grown, golden sweet corn at your disposal year round. Although that is really nice…… so nice that to this day I refuse to eat corn from a can or in a restaurant. It’s just not good enough. But on a deeper level, time working together is time spent together. Families who live in urban America have nothing comparable with which to spend their time. It's amazing how many people there are in this country who live under the same roof and yet they hardly know the person in the next room. But this example, I think, drives the point home. Earlier tonight as we all prepared to leave my parents’ home (where the work is always done), my nieces each gave me a hug and kiss and one of them, Mattie Ann, told me how glad she was that I was here this year for Corn Day. That made me happy. In a culture where families scatter and most nieces only know their uncle as the guy who shows up for a few days every Christmas, I’m glad my nieces will know me for something more. And I’m glad to still be a part of a dying tradition in a changing society somewhere in the mountains of Appalachia. Maybe I'm being a bit sentimental, or dare I say it, corny ... but there it is.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Cocoa Beach Journal - Entry II

Random Beach Observations

It is Tuesday in the afternoon on Cocoa Beach and I am in full beach bum mode. I don’t know what time it is and I don’t really care, just taking a moment to write down what I see. The beach is lively but relaxed and not overcrowded. A healthy breeze blows south, the waves are strong, and I am comfortable in the shade of an umbrella rented from Smitty. I’ve been reading from Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream and using a seagull feather I found in the sand as a bookmarker. In front of me some children – two boys and a girl – hastily construct a wall to protect their sandcastle from the coming tide. They are using plastic yellow shovels and the girl is chirping orders for the boys to dig a moat. They dig as though the fate of the world depends upon their speed.

A few paces to their right an old lady with a fancy hat tosses some kind of corn chip in the general direction of a seagull. The bird timidly accepts the gift and the lady is amused. She tosses a few more chips and, within seconds, is surrounded by seagulls and is now trying to shoo them away.

About six feet to my left I glance at a woman lying on her stomach on another rented chair. She is Latino and very beautiful. Her top is untied, her bikini is as black as her hair, and her oiled, bronze skin glistens under the sun. She is one of those rare women who you can stare at for an entire afternoon and it would not be wasted time. Sitting under an umbrella beside her is a much older man who does not stare at her at all but instead watches a cruise ship as it lurks across the horizon’s edge. He is nearly bald with a watermelon belly, grey chest hair, and wearing what looks like a gold Rolex watch. He is smoking a fat cigar and the breeze carries the scent to me. A cooler rests at his side and he periodically reaches inside and retrieves a Red Stripe. Both of them wear impressive wedding bands and her engagement ring is enormous. It even looks huge from where I sit. When she rises to sip from a bottle of water I notice her diamond necklace. In the two hours or so that they have been on the beach I have not heard either of them speak to one another.

A few young men with tattoos, waxed chests, and surfing boards that bear the Ron Jon’s insignia strut by three sunbathing girls who lounge on a large blanket in the sand. It’s funny. I remember when having a tattoo was unique and actually meant something. Now it just means you may have been to the mall or had a drunken night during Spring Break. The boys stick out their chests and try very hard to be impressive. I think one of them has highlights in his hair. Holy crap. No wonder the terrorists in Al-Qa’ida believe they can win. The boys just said hello to the girls and, after a brief exchange, rushed into the water with great enthusiasm. The girls are watching. Two of them have even risen up on their elbows. Ahhh… too bad. The boys don’t really know how to surf. They are being wiped out like splattered bugs on a windshield. Naturally, the girls are losing interest. One just rolled onto her stomach and is flipping through a magazine. The other two are refocused on getting a tan, or melanoma, or whichever comes first.

Ahead of me, I hear the little girl squeal as the first wave of the tide rolls over the sand wall and fills the moat that she and her two boy minions have tried so desperately to build. The next wave hits the foundation of the castle. The girl screams again and urges the boys to continue the struggle but they have had enough. One of the boys shrugs his shoulders, tosses the shovel aside, and heads into the surf. The other boy follows. “Well, fine then!” I hear the little girl say as she stamps her feet and marches over to what I assume is her parents’ umbrella. Another rush of water hits the castle and I’m reminded of the Hendrix song.

And so castles made of sand, melt into the sea, eventually…..

The song gets stuck in my head while the stunningly gorgeous Latino beside me stands abruptly and announces to her obese spouse that she is ready to leave. The man downs the last bit of his Red Stripe, stands, and stretches. He grabs his cooler and towel while she stoically gathers her belongings. As they walk away from the beach I hear her say that she wants to eat “somewhere really nice” tonight. The man responds with a grunt. It dawns on me that over the course of the entire afternoon that I shared the beach with them, this woman failed to smile a single time. What a shame. I would have liked to have seen her smile.

Taken from my personal journal - July 21, 2009