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5. The Confederate Army of Tennessee
Doctor Junie brought two people with her. One quiet and very thin young woman and an older man who was brimming with enthusiasm.
"I'm Fred Wirth. Junie told me what was going on and I had to come with her. And since I came with her, she made me pay for dinner last night at the hotel. And even buy the gas for the trip." Mr. Wirth said without anybody asking.
"He's an expert on Confederate units that didn't surrender when Lee did in Virginia or later when Johnstone did in the Carolinas." Dr. Junie explained.
"Oh." I said.
"Well. Shall we go up to the site?" Mr. Salmon asked them.
"Do you have lights and cameras and all that?" I asked.
"Got it all in my battle box." Mr. Wirth said.
"My things are in the car too." Dr. Junie added.
"Let's go." I held the door open for them.
The ride up to the site was narrated by Mr. Wirth describing one or two renegade groups of Confederates that had managed to hide out in the upper Shenandoah Valley for, depending on which legend you believed, between six months to fifty years after the end of the war.
Our construction guys were normal construction guys. Every man on the crew, with the possible exception of Dad Gilmore stopped what they were doing and got a good look at Dr. Junie and to a lesser degree, the student.
I have to admit it- Dr. Junie was a striking figure. She was small built with large dark eyes and auburn hair to the middle of her back. And even though she was quite petite, she had a figure that let you know she was indeed a woman something I had noticed and I noticed that the guys on the crew noticed as well. For her part she carried herself well and smiled once in awhile at some of the guys.
The graduate student Nikki though hadn't said more than "it's nice to meet you" or the occasional "Yes ma'am" since they had arrived that morning. I couldn't tell you if she even saw the rest of the crew.
We spent nearly an hour getting everything ready to go and checking equipment. I had Walt and Jimbo run electric extension cords across the clearing and into the cellars. It took about five hundred feet of cord, but it worked. Dr. Junie showed me some of the finer points of their video camera and how to get in on and off the tripod without wrecking either of them. Walt volunteered to carry two of the crates that contained some of the other equipment. With everything in hand, we set off for the cellars.
Once we were in the first room and there were artifacts to examine, Mr. Wirth became almost totally silent while Nikki began explaining things and telling us about the units and some of their history.
"This is a citation for bravery for a group of three squads at the battle for Chattanooga that we've come to call 'the Battle Above the Clouds'." Nikki said examining a framed document that had been in a drawer built into a wall cabinet.
"So who were they?" Mr. Krendel asked. "From Georgia or Alabama or…" He shrugged.
"I'm not completely sure sir. But this order was signed by Nathan Bedford Forrest as Lieutenant General, and it's dated 6 June." Nikki stood up and looked at us. "At the very end of the war Generals Forrest and Richard Taylor had been in command of the military and the administrative department of everything from eastern Louisiana to Alabama and some parts of Tennessee and even into Georgia to protect the river and rail lines that were still operating. I'm not sure why Forrest would have signed the order since the official surrender was in early May, shortly after Taylor surrendered the regional administration."
"Ahhh. Old Forrest." Mr. Wirth said. "He was a character. Millionaire by all accounts before the war. Spent a lot of his own money on it. He probably saw the end coming and was trying to position himself to come out better in it."
Nikki didn't say anything in reply.
"So who was in charge here?" I asked. "Or would that be in the other room?" I indicated the hallway with the bunks and the door we had just gotten open.
"There's more?" Dr. Junie said.
"Oh yes." Mr. Salmon said. "And I think it's the best part."
That was all it took.
Dr. Junie and the others had to go see right now.
Mr. Salmon took great pride in showing them the money. But that wasn't what evoked the biggest reaction. That came when Dr. Junie saw the stack of hand written pages in the desk drawer. She put on a pair of plastic gloves, and then covered them with thin cloth gloves before she ever so gently touched the papers and began reading the tightly written script.
"This." She proclaimed quietly but dramatically. "Is a national treasure."
I had captured both Dr. Junie's reaction and her statement on the video camera. But neither really registered with me until she began to explain exactly what the letters were about.
"Like Fred said, General Forrest had financed his unit's war effort to some degree, and by the end of the war, he was ruined. Both professionally and financially." She was still reading while she spoke in her soft voice. "But Forrest always had one eye on his future, and even when it was clear they wouldn't win the war, he was working angles for his future." She put another page aside and kept reading and speaking. "Evidently this facility was one of his angles. He was still in command of…" She looked around. "This place and the troops that were here, even though I don't think he ever actually set up personal command here."
Mr. Wirth nodded. "He had a lot of irons in the fire, but I didn't know he had anything going this far east. Most of his concerns were in Memphis." He thought about it. "But this is close to the river and the rail road. He might have had his eye on extending his reach this far that way."
Dr. Junie nodded and looked at another page. "That would fit with this information. There are plans here for this unit to secure a landing point just upriver for a riverboat port."
"Did they ever do it?" Mr. Salmon asked.
"I don't think so."
"Nah. By the time they could have made a move the Yankees already had regular patrols and service on the river." Mr. Wirth said.
"These documents need to be professionally conserved as soon as possible."
"We'd like to preserve them for a display and memorial here." Mr. Salmon said.
"As part of the center." I added.
Dr. Junie nodded. "Of course, but if they're left out they will deteriorate rapidly."
"Lithos." Mr. Wirth said.
I saw where he was going with it. "We could have some good reproductions made. If we could get one or two of the originals to display in a case, the others could be reproductions."
Mr. Salmon pursed his lips. "That'll work. How about the guns and stuff?"
That got Nikki going again. She went on and on about how several more obscure makes of rifles were represented in the group. Including several unusual specimens that were of European manufacture. "There must have been some of the Scandinavian mercenaries in the group here."
I'd never heard of them.
"There were quite a few Swedes and some others that fought for the Confederacy." Mr. Wirth said.
"Yes indeed. And there's the name of one of them right here. Sergeant… I think it says Bjorginson. But I can't be sure of that." Dr. Junie said. "The name was partially overwritten like the writer was trying to correct the spelling."
"The Sergeant was standing behind him." Mr. Wirth said.
"How many troops were staying here?" I asked.
Dr. Junie went through the ledger. "The last entry is for August 21, 1865. It doesn't say who wrote it but the entry before that was by Major Reeves and the handwriting is the same. He was issuing pay to his men in 'Yankee American Dollars'. There are nine names here."
"What happened to the Colonel?" I asked.
She carefully turned back a few pages in the stack of sheets and read to herself. Then in a minute she began reading to us. "'Acting Lieutenant Colonel Samuels went to' I can't make out the name of the town, or maybe its military camp 'to secure supplies for the' I guess it says 'outpost. He is due to return within two weeks with provisions and orders for river operation…'" She paused for a second. "The date on that entry is the seventeenth. He must not have made it back."
"That would explain why the Confederate money is still in the drawer." I said.
"There's a lot here that we don't understand." Dr. Junie said. "I don't have any idea why a holdout Confederate force would use Northern money, or even where they'd get it." She shook her head. "This is a mystery that is going to take some time to solve. If we ever do."
After some more discussion they began putting the documents into containers for shipment back to the University where they could be properly cared for.
One of Dr. Junie's concerns that hadn't even occurred to any of the rest of us was that the State of Alabama might not be in favor of something from the state that had the historical significance of our find being taken out of state. Dr. Junie assured us that she would be in touch with the state's historical affairs office and smooth any rough spots that might come up that way.
"By assuring them that once the documents are conserved that they will be returned to the site and put into proper facilities for display and research, we should be able to assuage any misgivings they may have." She said.
Nikki agreed. "The main thing is to preserve them. And since they were discovered on property owned by your company…"
Mr. Wirth interrupted her. "You did have clear title to this place before you started all this right?"
"Yes sir." Mr. Salmon answered. "Our company won't even think about a place before we've got all that sealed and in hand. They bought this place outright last year and made sure all liens and assessments and all that were taken care of. And even that the mineral and water rights are secured. There's no point building on a plot of land that some mining company could move in on if something turns up."
"They do it that way because that happened once. The company was buying the ground, but couldn't dig a well or even collect rainwater. The water on the property belonged to another outfit. They backed out of it." I added.
"They'll do that to you." Mr. Wirth said.
"Then you should be the sole and legal owner of anything on the property. Even something like this. But you'd better check." Dr. Junie advised.
Mr. Salmon nodded. "That was the second call I made yesterday. Company property lawyers are already working on it. I think one of them is coming down later in the week. But they usually tell us about stuff after they do it."
"So will they run it by the state historical affairs office or should I?"
"I'll find out and let you know Junie." Mr. Salmon told her.
By lunch we had the ledger and most of the papers in their shipping containers. Then we broke for an hour or so to begin again later.
While we sat around eating Dad Gilmore made a few half-serious comments about disturbing the spirits of some long dead 'Johnny Rebs'.
At least I thought they weren't totally serious.
And Mr. Wirth kept up a running narration of General Forrest's personality and accomplishments. How he was the only soldier on either side during the war to rise from private to ranking General, how he never lost a battle, and how after the war several European authorities regarded him as the most capable military commander America ever produced even though he had little, if any, formal education and no previous military experience.
"And, guess who made a personal study of Forrest's battle plans and techniques?" He asked us.
I had no idea.
"Patton." Mr. Salmon guessed.
"Right war, wrong side." Mr. Wirth paused. "Field Marshal Erwin Rommel."
"The Desert Fox." I muttered.
"One in the same."
Mr. Salmon nodded. "I think I had heard that before. Forrest is one of the more dynamic figures of the war that's fallen out of favor because of his pre-war occupation."
I must have looked puzzled because Dad Gilmore answered the question I didn't ask. "He'as a big time slave trader." He said slowly with a sour look on his face.
"He'd made most of his money in agriculture." Mr. Wirth said. "But there's no doubt about it, he earned quite a bit in the slave trade. And owned a bunch of them as well."
"I see." I muttered quietly trying to take it all in. I hadn't seen Dad Gilmore frown as heavily as he was right then.
"But all that still does nothing to take away from his accomplishments as an army commander." Mr. Wirth said.
"If ya'll say so sir." Dad Gilmore said quietly and his expression got even deeper.
Since we were getting into some sensitive territory I changed the topic slightly. "Where would they have gotten their supplies that long after the surrender without attracting attention?"
"There were still a lot of sympathizers in the area. Even though Northern Alabama wasn't big slavery-wise, they had little use for the Yankees. And later when the carpetbaggers and reconstructionists moved in, it got even worse."
"But military supplies would surely catch somebody's eye."
"You'd think so Mr. Salmon. But there was a lot of captured and surrendered hardware around. And not all of it was kept under lock and key." Dr. Junie said. "There were reports of Confederate and even some Union arms turning up out West and in Mexico as well."
"And even overseas for several years after the war." Mr. Wirth said.
They went on to discuss the post war arms trade.
We ran a little over the standard lunch hour, but when we got up and started back into the cellar I felt like I had just had half a semester of Civil War history.
And really I had.
Most of the afternoon was spent packing samples of everything including some cartridges with gunpowder still in them.
"We can do chemical analysis of the powder and even the balls and tell where it came from with pretty good accuracy." Dr. Junie said.
"Oh yeah!" Mr. Wirth said. "That's something too." He smiled at Nikki.
"We've identified over thirty different chemical signatures for powder. Some of them from overseas." Nikki said. "Once I get the reports back I'm very confident we'll be able to identify at least the manufacturer and possibly even the supply chain to at least the military depot where it originated."
"How can you do that? This stuff was made a hundred and fifty years ago." I asked while they packed a decaying paper wrapped cartridge into a padded container.
"It's involved a lot of cooperation from everybody from the Smithsonian all the way down to private collectors. We've found original shipping containers with residue and even some original material in them. Some companies still had original powder in their vaults. It's a giant puzzle, but we've got a lot of the pieces to it." Dr. Junie explained with some pride.
"I'll be interested to see the results."
"We all will Mr. Salmon."
It was late when we got back to town. We stopped at the office for a few minutes. Then me and Mr. Salmon left for the house with Mr. Wirth. Dr. Junie and Nikki rode home with the Krendel's.
Alice had a record setting dinner waiting for us. Except that since we had run a little late, the biscuits were cold. Mr. Salmon still sang her praises as a cook and Mr. Wirth wanted her recipe for meatloaf. I knew I was on the spot, so I had to come up with something.
"I think I'll keep her around." I grinned.
Mr. Salmon got a funny look on his face. "I kinda like the sound of that."
I blinked a couple of times as I realized what it probably sounded like. But Alice was smiling at me and even Robby seemed to catch at least part of what it could mean.
In a second Alice rescued the situation by saying she didn't have any other prospects for a part time job so she'd stay as long as I wanted her to.
Mr. Salmon wanted to go out for his after dinner walk right after Alice and Robby left. "I usually get out several times a week. It's about the only exercise I get." He said to Mr. Wirth.
As we walked, and the two older men smoked cigars and I made yet another attempt to, we talked about some of the other places we'd gone for after dinner walks.
"At least here there's no chance of falling in a river after dark." Mr. Salmon said.
"There is that creek out back." I said pointing through the yard toward the trees.
"Let's go see." Mr. Wirth said.
I nodded and we walked through the yard to the tree line.
"That's not big enough to fall into." Mr. Salmon laughed.
The trickle of water wasn't really big enough to call a creek. But there was plenty of evidence that during heavy weather it got a lot more impressive.
We walked along it until it joined another stream that ran under the bridge. Now it was a real creek, complete with schools of small fish that darted back and forth.
"This isn't much smaller than the creek below the new center." Mr. Salmon said as we turned and walked along the bank toward the bridge. "That's going to end up a nice feature when they get it done."
At least Mr. Salmon had somebody else to talk to until nearly midnight besides me. Him and Mr. Wirth were trading stories and tall tales long after I had gone to bed.
But when my alarm went off and I went downstairs and started the coffeemaker it wasn't long before I heard them stirring in the other room.
I had to go to the office in spite of everything else that was going on. Some paperwork and contracts simply would not wait for archeological research to run its course. So I got stuck sorting through spreadsheets and filling out tax papers.
So Mr. Salmon got to drive up to the site, and later he declared the trip from the paved road up to the clearing the most adventurous ten minutes behind the wheel of his life.
"I'm glad you had such a good time." I said. "Mrs. Krendel said you found another room?"
"Oh yes sir. It was behind one of the bookcases in the Colonel's room." Mr. Wirth answered with enthusiasm.
"It was a small storeroom, but it had some good things in it."
I waited. I knew one of them would tell me sooner or later.
Mr. Wirth started naming stuff that ranged from mundane regimental outfitting supplies to far more interesting personal effects like a travel case for what seemed to be a Baptist chaplain for the unit.
"It even had his baptismal book of who he'd immersed in the creek at Chickamauga before the battle." Mr. Salmon said.
"Dr. Junie said the names in it will be compared to the records of Confederate units to see if any of them match up." Mr. Wirth added. "That and there's some records in it of a Catholic chaplain giving last rites to some other soldiers, and a few of them were Yankees. They'll check those names too."
All I could do was nod at the information. The weight of the history they were talking about got heavy in the room.
Mr. Salmon went into what Dr. Junie and Nikki did with what they found including how he had ended up running the video camera. "If you got all your stuff done you can come with us tomorrow. They're going to finish up putting everything into bags and boxes."
I looked up at Mrs. Krendel who had been quietly listening to everything.
"I think everything important is done Mr. Salmon. I can send the files to the main office in the morning."
"Well. In that case. You can come with us in the morning."
I know I smiled like he had said that I could go out and play since I'd cleaned my room.
Then Mr. Salmon grinned a mile wide.
"What?" I asked.
"We're going out tonight." Mr. Wirth said.
I just looked around.
"Mrs. Krendel accepted for you and Miss…. What was her name again?" Mr. Salmon said slowly. "Miss... Lasater I believe it was."
"You know her name as well as I do." I said. Then I realized what he was saying. "So you and Carol are intent on fixing us up together." I looked at my secretary.
She didn't say a word.
"But it's Thursday." I protested.
"We'll get a good seat."
"One of your guys said there was a good country group playing tonight at a place just up in Tennessee. I thought we'd go check them out." Mr. Wirth kept talking about how he needed a night out after all the conservation work.
It was about two minutes later that I realized I was looking forward to it as well.
6. The Godfathers of Alternative Texas Country
It was a large contingent of people associated with the project that made the trip north to the place that everybody had talked about, but nobody had been to.
It was only about ten miles away in a straight line. But the way things were around here we covered more than twice that distance driving up to route 156 then across the river on the Interstate to the nightclub.
Fortunately Mr. Wirth and Mr. Salmon decided to ride with the Krendels in their van with Dr. Junie and Nikki so I got to spend some of the trip in my car with Alice apologizing to her for my boss.
"It's OK. I haven't been out like this in ages." She smiled as I followed the van along the highway.
We were crossing the river on I-24 when it dawned on me that there had also been a conspiracy to give me and Alice time alone together in my car for the drive up there.
We talked more than we had before, and I realized that while I thought we were the same age, she turned out to be about six years younger than I was, in her mid-twenties. I didn't say anything but wondered about the age difference. Then I decided that it really didn't matter at all.
Not at all.
At one time the club was probably one of the hottest tickets in the area. The location was spectacular with a great view of the river and its position as the only night spot of any size for miles around. The walls of the front part of the club were covered with framed autographed pictures of celebrities of all sorts. I saw country music stars, race car drivers, a couple of movie actors, and a smattering of politicians including one US President. Most of the autographs had some sort of personalization to them. It was an impressive display.
"Good Evening Folks! Ya'lls a trifle early for the band, but welcome anyhow!" A smiling man in a shiny white cowboy hat said to us with a big smile.
"We're here for dinner and the show." Mr. Salmon said to him.
"Oh, ya'lls the folks from Bryant. Yes sir. Come right on in. We got ya a table right down front."
The place was bigger than it looked, but it was far from huge. There was already a good crowd occupying some of the choicer seats around the perimeter and down front. But off to the left of the stage was a large round table with a reserved sign on it. The smiling man in the hat led us to it and held out a chair for Mrs. Krendel.
He passed out menus then nodded. "Now ya'll have a seat and I'll send Delores right out." He smiled to us. Then he walked quickly off in search of Delores.
I looked around and nodded. "Looks like they do a good business."
Mr. Krendel sat next to his wife. "I know they used to. Was a time you couldn't get in here on weekends."
I sat between Mrs. Krendel and Alice, the others spread out around the table saving two seats for Walt and Angela. Before long a friendly looking woman walked up to our table with an order pad.
"Now everybody order whatever you want. This is my treat for their last night in town." Mr. Salmon said indicating Mr. Wirth and company.
"How much do they want for the whole club?" Mr. Krendel asked the waitress.
She grinned and laughed with the rest of us. "I'm sure he'll make ya a good deal on it."
After dinner we got to sit and visit for awhile before the band came out and the place really started jumping.
Without warning several guys and a couple of women got up from a table on the far side of the place and walked up onto the stage. They picked up the instruments that were there and began playing some hard driving instrumental country music.
There was no warmup act. No local group that played half an hour of other people's music. No lame comic with stale jokes. Nothing like that. The group that had been eating and drinking at that far table were the main act. And when it was time to play, they got up and played.
After about twenty minutes of solid music one of the guys stepped to a microphone while still playing guitar and announced that his name was Charlie they were called 'Country Acres', but most people knew them as the Godfathers of Alternative Texas Country Music.
"What's that mean?" I whispered to Alice. She shrugged.
I don't see how Charlie could have heard me, but either he did or he had been asked that a lot because he answered it after a few sparkling guitar riffs.
"Alternative Texas Country means we play straight up Country that ya hear in the Northeast.... North East Texas that is." Somebody in the audience whooped and hollered. "Oh Yeah!" Charlie responded. "Lake Country!"
He was interrupted by applause. The rest of the band fed on it and the music became even more spirited.
"Yeah! We play Country country, and a little bit of everything else. Everything Else Country that is!"
And to prove it they launched into a medley of standard country favorites arranged, or would that be re-arranged, to fit their really upbeat and lively style.
Charlie did most of the singing for the group and almost all of the interaction with the audience.
"This is one of our original numbers. The song was written for us by a friend of mine who turned Yankee on us and moved to the East Coast. But I'll forgive her for that if she keeps writing good songs." He laughed with the rest of us as the band began playing the melody again. "Beneath Bright Texas Stars."
The song had a lot more soul to it than the others they'd done. They ran through the verses and the chorus, and then as they wound down he spoke the words to the chorus and waved us all to stand up and sing it with him. We did, mostly, then he signaled the band to play it again and had the audience join him for it once more.
"You're always there for me, you're my strength and my hope. Hard days I was hanging, at the end of my rope. You're always there for me, all through the troubled times that plagued my childhood days I'd laugh with you a while and I'd forget my pains all through the troubled times."
Everybody clapped and cheered as the song ended.
"Thank you." Charlie bowed and indicated we should applaud the rest of the band as well.
We did. With gusto.
A little later they played a long dance set, and during the couples part of it I danced with Alice and found myself doing OK at least by her appraisal. Until they did a line dance. Then I had to admit I was absolutely clueless for anything past the 'Cotton Eyed Joe'.
Dr. Junie danced every line dance they played and cheered for more. Mr. Salmon was a sport about it and gave a fair accounting of himself. The Krendels were surprisingly good although they claimed they didn't dance very often because their church disapproved. Angela and Walt were really game for it and showed the rest of us up when it came to the 'Electric Slide'.
"Thank ya folks. Thank you." Charlie beamed from the stage. "We're gonna take a little break and then we'll be back for some more."
We cheered and applauded some more.
We didn't want to close the place because everybody had to work in the morning, so just before the band got back on stage several of us went up to them and thanked them for a great show.
"Well. We hate ta see ya'll go. But I know what it's like to have to work in the morning."
"It's even worse for us." Walt said. "Mr. Salmon here is the big boss."
"Oh." Charlie said. "That's bad. So how far ya gotta go tonight?"
"Just down to Bryant." Mr. Krendel said.
"Just across the line in Alabama." I answered.
His face lit up. "How about ya'll stay for one more song? We'll do it just for ya'll."
Mr. Salmon looked around at us. Everybody nodded.
Charlie whispered to the others in the band and they all nodded. Then he stepped up and gestured our way while he spoke. "There's some good folk down here what's got to go to work early in the morning so they's gonna light out for home now and I wanted to give them a good send off and somethin' ta sing on their way to their sweet home in Alabama!"
We didn't even get a chance to sit down.
One of the other guitar players hit the signature chords to a classic song about Alabama and the entire room cheered.
All the way home me and Alice were singing the song, even the parts where we weren't sure of the words.
"It was a wonderful night. Thank you." She smiled at me as we waited for Robby to get in the car.
"I should thank you." I answered.
She was going to say something else but Robby landed in the car and started telling us all about the new card game he had learned how to play. Then he was giving us cards over the seat and telling us not to look at them.
The next morning there were still cards in my car.
Friday morning Dr. Junie and the others packed up everything they hadn't shipped and left for home.
It was something of an anti-climax all things considered. Mr. Salmon and I left Mr. Krendel and Walt in charge at the site and went back to the office to begin lining up Phase Two of the construction.
The site work was nearing the finishing up stage to where they were leveling the main parking area and digging out the last of the more stubborn tree stumps. The new water well was being drilled just down the hill from the existing well, which had been re-bored and tested and pronounced good to go. Both would be in service when we opened. The new well would feed the higher demand housing unit, the old well would be connected to the pipes that would feed the main building. Both of which would have automatic valves that would engage to divert all the water in the system to the fire fighting equipment if the alarm sounded.
"So, how deep did they have to drill for the second well?" I asked Walt.
"Deeper than they thought." He answered.
"You're going to get a call with a formal protest from the Chinese government." Mr. Krendel said with a smile.
"Add them to the list." I chuckled.
Down on the creek the heavy construction crew had poured the footings for the bridge and the new road was being built in stages.
The trailer had been moved back to a spot just outside of the clearing out of the way of the other work and was now a hive of activity as the various crews used it for everything from a break room and first aid station to, on one occasion, a trades union meeting hall. Dad Gilmore seemed to be as happy as he could be keeping track of all of it.
The power company had been working steadily for the last week or so and now there was a pole standing tall on the back side of the site just below the crest of the hill with a temporary service panel on it. The plan was to run the lines to it, then bring them down and bury the service from there to a utility shed where we'd break it out to the various buildings. Walt had marked the trench for the service and was planning on doing the digging Monday.
We had gone out to the site to finish the archeology team's packing, then brought their stuff back into town. Now me and Mr. Salmon were sitting in the office doing paperwork.
A real letdown after all the excitement of the week.
"I've calculated that we are nearly three full weeks ahead of schedule." I said to Mr. Salmon as we poured over contractor schedules and estimates.
"Oh yes. At least." He was looking at the plans for the hotel area. "You've done remarkably well."
"The crew has. They're the ones that have pulled this off." I said putting a printout of the numbers and requirements for yet another inspector into a folder.
He nodded. "You're right." Then he smiled. "Let's do an Owensboro."
I blinked. "A big cookout? When?"
"Tomorrow. Before I leave. Let's do it."
"But where do we?"
"That supermarket, and Cousin Melvin. Let's go. I've had enough of the office."
"Marvin. But we've…"
Mr. Salmon was reaching for his suit jacket. A sure sign that he was serious. "You're two weeks ahead. Tell the site inspector your boss kidnapped you to go buy Italian sausages."
"Now. Who do we see to set this up for tomorrow?"
I paused for a second. "The one that knows everybody and everything."
We drove back up to the site and found Mr. Gilmore in the trailer playing nurse to one of the guys that had gotten a little too close to some briars.
The man declined a ride to the hospital but promised if the multiple scrapes and small cuts became infected he wouldn't hesitate to see a doctor.
"I mean it." Mr. Salmon said to the man.
"Yes sir." The worker said and pulled his shirt back on.
Dad Gilmore started putting the first aid kit away. I sat down at the kitchen table as Mr. Salmon looked out the door watching the crew work.
Then Dad Gilmore looked at me. "Yes sir. I'll be more'n happy to do anythin' I can for ya'll."
I blinked at the old man. "I didn't say anything Mr. Gilmore. Sorry. Dad."
"I knows when ya'll want somethin."
"The man's good." Mr. Salmon said. "Keep him on."
"Yes sir." I said.
"Well, Dad. It's like this. I wanna have everybody up here tomorrow for a picnic. The company will supply everything. All they have to do is show up."
"Families and all." I added.
"Everybody. Families, kids, whoever shows up. We'll do it again before the place opens and invite the whole town up."
"Oh they'll like that." Dad Gilmore looked at me and nodded. Then his face got a little more serious. "But ya'll don't have no cookin' grill or nothin'."
"No sir." I said.
"We'll pay to use them if you know…"
"Yes sir. Our church has big dinners all the time. I'll have Bishop Miller bring them up here. "And he won't want paid for nuthin' excep' the cookin' gas."
"Wonderful. I'll get the chicken and stuff."
"Pardon me sir. But he can get better prices on all that." The old man was grinning ear to ear.
I had to grin too. "Let's see how many of the guys will come and who'll they bring."
We went outside and Dad Gilmore used his paging system to get everybody's attention.
Even over the running equipment and other construction noise the Uni's horn got attention.
In a few minutes we were explaining what was going on and asking who could come and who they could bring.
"Can I bring my folks Mister Chet?"
"Yes sir." I answered.
"Bring your entire family." Mr. Salmon told them. "Brothers, cousins. As long as they're some sort of kin. Bring'em. And the next one we'll do when the place is done we're gonna invite the whole town."
"Pardon me Mr. Salmon." Dad Gilmore said, "But if all these boys bring their whole families, that'll be most of the town."
"So be it." The man answered. "Now. We'll be starting about noon. Who's comin' and how many people are you bringing?"
"And if you forget to tell us about somebody, bring them anyway, we'll make sure there's plenty of food."
Dad Gilmore had the final touch. "And it's all right to if ya'lls wanna bring some des'ert or somethin like some baked beans too. It'll just add to the good time."
Mr. Salmon went with Dad Gilmore to secure the grill and the meat. I headed the other way with Mr. Krendel to buy up most of the cole slaw and chips in the county.
"I wouldn't be surprised if maybe about thirty or forty more people show up than what we're figurin'." Mr. Krendel said as we both pushed shopping carts through the huge warehouse supermarket just outside of Scottsboro.
"Free meal and curiosity about the Confederate stuff?"
"No problem." I said and picked up two more mixed case of chips.
We were expecting about a hundred people. But we bought food for about a hundred and fifty or so since we'd be better off sending food home with some of the people than running out.
The truck wouldn't have held another bottle of ketchup if we had wanted it to. We'd spent hundreds of dollars on everything from prizes for some kid's contests to several big ice chests to keep things cold in and the ice to do it.
"Well, if nothing else. We'll have half a party." Mr. Krendel said as we squeezed into the front with a stack of boxes between us.
I nodded and then laughed as he started the truck for the trip home.
Mr. Salmon was as happy as I had ever seen him.
The church picnic dinner grill was a huge contraption built on a trailer that could use either propane or charcoal. The grate surface was three feet across by about six long and covered by two steel lids over either end that could be closed independently. Mr. Salmon showed me the extension on the back end of it that could be used as an oven and stove if it was hooked up to gas. Tomorrow, the oven end would be burning LP, the cooking grate would be full of charcoal.
"Impressive." I said to him and the two men in overalls standing nearby.
Most of the cooker had been hand built by its owner and his brother. And they took obvious pleasure in showing it off.
We arranged for them to arrive tomorrow at the site in advance of the guests who would park at the road construction site or at the office in town where we'd ferry them up in the trucks.
With everything set we went to the house where Alice and Robby had dinner waiting on us.
"Hey. Thank you Mister Salmon. It's a great fort!" Robby said directing yet another military operation across the back porch.
"No problem Rob. I saw that at the store and thought you'd like it."
"Oh, Robby I got you something too." I said. "I'll go get it." I walked back out to the truck and dug in the boxes in the front seat then went back to the war. "Two new warriors. I didn't remember seeing them in your army so I picked them up today."
"Oh Gee! Maximus Rust and Krypto." He knew their names without reading the package. "Thank you Mister Chet! This is so cool!" He began ripping at the package to free his troops.
We went inside leaving Robby to run his campaign.
Now I had to face my next task. I wanted to ask Alice to come with me to the picnic, but I wasn't sure how to do it.
Mr. Salmon didn't let my hesitation slow him down at all. She wanted to hear all about the picnic and he invited her to be my escort. "And if you come as Chet's special friend then you'll be the Hostess for it."
Alice smiled that smile at me then him. "Special friend?"
He nodded with a grin.
"Oh. Thank you for the fort for Robby." She said. "It's really something."
"It was nothing. He's a great kid." Mr. Salmon looked out the door.
Robby saw us watching him so he picked up his two new toys and brought them in.
He told us all about their weapons and armor and how Rust could command machines with his special power.
"Did they come with the fort?" Alice asked him.
"No ma'am. Mister Chet bought them for me!" He took them back out.
"You two are spoiling him."
"You're spoiling us cooking like this." Mr. Salmon said checking the pot on the stove.
She smiled again.
Bright and early Saturday morning I picked up Alice and Robby in my car. Mr. Salmon took the truck and went the other way.
There were some things we had to pick up at a couple of places and I had to stop at the office for other things. Then we parked to 'start a row'. In the cleared area near where the new bridge would be and Robby helped me put up signs and hang the banner.
"First Trip Up the Mountain!" Jimbo called out from across the creek. He was driving the tractor pulling the large flatbed trailer we were using as a shuttle.
"On our way!" I answered and waved back.
Alice and I gathered up the stuff and walked across the temporary bridge to the trailer.
"Good morning sir! Ma'am." Jimbo said with a huge smile and a nod. "Hey Robby!"
"Morning." We all answered.
"Who's here?" I asked him.
Jimbo revved the engine and we started up the hill as he answered. "Dad Gilmore came up with Mr. Jacobs and the grill. Mr. Salmon was here and dropped off some stuff, then he left again. Pete and his folks just got here but they walked up the other way." He gestured off toward the other side of the mountain as we bounced along.
Robby laughed the whole trip up and as we rounded the last turn and we got a good view well into Georgia I joined him. It was a very nice view.
There were still dozens of things to do to get it set up for a family picnic. And we all set to helping as we could. I helped set up the big blow up bouncing thing and a huge pirate ship with climbing ladders and slides and even a cannon that would shoot water. Then Robby tried them out.
The huge grill was smoking and Mr. Jacob's and his son were busy getting it ready to start cooking. I looked at my watch and wondered where the other hour had gone. We had gotten here before nine, now it was just after eleven.
"We've been busy." I said as I stopped and looked around.
We'd set up tables where Alice and her friend Jackie were going to do face painting for the kids. A small stage had been set up for 'Mike's Great Magic Puppet Show'. There were various game booths for small prizes for kids, and some other more 'adult' games for other prizes, including cash and gift certificates for things like groceries and car washes.
Mr. Salmon said that buying the prizes for the games and the door prizes had been one of the highlights of his trip.
He told me that one of the keys to doing something like that for good 'salt of the Earth' people like we had here was to have prizes of stuff they might not buy for themselves, but that they would want to get as a birthday present. Not extravagant by any means, but nicer than their everyday things. Which was why the watches and other things he'd bought for prizes weren't fancy names from European designers, but good quality items with a pronounceable name. When we had done one of these in New York City he had bought a few very 'fru-fru' type gifts for door prizes.
The kid's games were all free. When they won, and everybody won, they got a couple of tickets. Later in the day the tickets could be redeemed for the prizes. The adult games of chance were a little more involved, some involving a series of trivia questions, others like the adult ring toss were simply a matter of skill and control that I'd never master and cost a small donation to a local charity.
Then more of the people started to arrive.
Dad Gilmore had volunteered to be our official greeter. "That way I get to see everybody." He said with a big grin. "I'll tell'em where everythin's at and give'm a ticket." He held up the roll of door prize tickets.
"Very good sir." I had answered.
It wasn't long before there was a small crowd around Dad Gilmore and he was steadily handing out tickets and talking non stop.
From there the people filtered across the clearing to see what all there was to see and do.
Two of the three primary churches represented by our workers had set up 'white elephant' tables. Then there were a couple of crafter tables. Then the games. One of them, the dunk tank, had been the first serious test of our water well and its capacity to meet the demand we would be placing on it. We filled the giant tank and the stream from the pump never diminished at all.
On the other side was a couple of guys setting up a DJ table and working diligently to get it to operate. A few minutes later the system whined a bit, then came to life and they began playing all sorts of music ranging from straight up gospel to bluegrass and country with a few classic rock songs thrown in to make it interesting.
Then there was the huge grill. Already starting to smell very promising as they loaded it down with smoked sausages and hamburgers and everything else.
Then was what amounted to my display next to the trailer. You could see the architect's model for the center, photographs of other locations. All sorts of information about the company and what we did. As well as a small display of the Civil War stuff we'd found and a quickly made up paper about the museum and memorial we were establishing as well.
Just down by where the infamous chicken coup had been sat a row of portable toilets and a big water tank for hand washing.
"When you talk to Connie in Mobile again thank her for going above and beyond for this one." I said to Mr. Salmon.
"You're not kidding." He grinned. "But she said they use this group all the time. They've got everything ready to go on a moment's notice. And if there wasn't a fireman's carnival this weekend someplace by Birmingham we could have had some kiddy rides too. And, I have to be honest with you. I had Carol call down there Tuesday and line it up. Once I'd seen what you'd done, I knew I wanted to do it. But I'd still liked to have had a couple of rides for the kids."
"I think we've got enough. They're having a blast."
He nodded. "But I still want the rides for the grand opening."
"Even the pony ride?" I asked.
"Of course. I want to be first in line."
"Excuse me. Mr. Chet." One of the workers wanted to introduce his wife and her brother to me.
For the next hour I met people and shook hands and showed off the plans for the new building.
The rule was supposed to be 'family members only' but that had evidently been slightly bent if not broken as I was introduced to a priest and then a "really good friend" and some others who seemed to have just wandered in to see what was going on.
It didn't matter at all though. We had plenty of food and to spare.
By the end of the day we'd managed to put a big dent in the available food and Mr. Salmon had joyously given away most of the prizes to those that won games or door prizes, and some to those that didn't.
Everybody that left took plastic containers full of food, and anybody that hadn't won a prize ended up with something out of the prize box.
And there wasn't a kid in the place that didn't have at least one new toy of some description.
"Are you sure?" Mrs. Parker said three times as I tried to give her another container full of food and Mr. Salmon handed her a men's watch to take home.
"Yes ma'am. You said your husband didn't feel up to coming. You give him a dinner and a watch and tell him about the kids running all over that big boat and he'll think he'd been here." Mr. Salmon said to the lady.
"Thankee sir. Thank you both." She said almost in tears.
"Your son's been a big help to us. He's a very good worker." I said nodding to Ricky who'd done things with a chainsaw I didn't think could be done. Including digging a good sized hole in the ground, but he did miss his own foot.
Ricky smiled broadly and put his arm around his mother. "Thanks again." He said as they walked away.
I waited until they were almost to the trailer to get a ride down the hill before I said anything. "It wasn't a lie."
Mr. Salmon looked at me. "I didn't say a word." He laughed. "But I remember that accident report. It could'a happened to anybody."
"Not twice in one day."
"Good point." He turned toward another couple that was getting ready to go. "Did'ja'all have enough to eat?" He said with a big smile and his hand stuck out.
It was after dark before I carried a very tired boy from the car to the house.
"Thanks so much. It was a wonderful day." Alice said to me as she pulled off Robby's shoes as I laid him on their couch.
"Yeah it was." I said nodding to her.
Robby had won his fair share of the games and had a sack full of prizes. One of the things that I hadn't expected was how much fun the kids had in trading prizes back and forth. And then they'd come and tell me and Mr. Salmon how they had swapped whatever it was they had had last time with somebody else for something else, then they'd go do it again. Neither of us even pretended to keep up with it all.
Alice pulled a blanket partially over her son as he slept, then she picked up the bag of food containers and indicated she wanted me to follow her into the kitchen.
"Can you help me put these away?" She asked and handed me a small plastic tub full of potato salad.
She re-wrapped the cooked chicken and I put it away. Then we sorted out some of the other things and she put a few items in the freezer.
"Thank you." She smiled to me.
Before I could answer she had stepped up to me and was looking me right in the eye.
"I mean it." She said.
All I could think to do was kiss her.
Within a few days of the picnic my role changed dramatically as far as the new site was concerned.
The site work was pretty much complete. A lot of the guys were staying on as day labor for the building contractor, but some were moving on to other jobs.
Mr. Krendel worked closely with the general contractor and the others on the actual construction side of things leaving the rest of it to me.
The rest of it was everything from lining up suppliers for the center when it opened to picking out which type of sod to have the landscaper put down. And now I had to start the search for the staff for the center.
Fortunately for me, I had several good local contacts to help with that side of things.
So for the final selection of the color scheme for the interiors, I just kept the samples overnight and asked Alice and Mrs. Krendel what they thought of them.
The construction phase went steadily for some time. For awhile the framing crew worked six days a week. And they got it done.
Our retreats were staffed in two phases. We hired the general manager and the program director first. They had overall responsibility for the center with the program director being second in command to the general manager, but with each having very different responsibilities.
The general manager was in charge of the day to day responsibilities of the center itself. It was their job to make sure the grass got cut and that the heating bill was paid and all the other mundane tasks that had to be done to keep the place operating. They usually had a direct staff of about five full time people with a varying number of part timers and on call people for functions. The program director handled everything to do with scheduling events, arranging the facility to meet the needs of the clients putting together menus and meeting special housing needs as well as providing normal equipment for seminars and conventions.
Between the two jobs, I knew the program director's job was the biggest headache in the world.
After the two senior staff were hired and in place we would get together with them and hire their staff according to our 'model' guidelines. Yes every site was different. Yes every location had different needs and special problems. But there were some things that were the same everywhere, and we could get a good core staff on board and in place when the center opened and then work from there.
One afternoon about a month after the party I was looking through a preliminary list of managers and senior employees in other locations that had expressed some interest in the new center when Alice came into the office to do her cleaning in there.
"What's wrong?" I asked her.
"Carol just said you were looking for a general manager for the center."
"I am." I said not understanding.
"Well. You said your job was to get it built and staffed then you'd move on to another location they're building."
I nodded. "Yes ma'am."
"That means you'll be leaving."
OK. I'm really not as dumb as some friends and family and a few of my supervisors have said I am. Sometimes I pick up on things and occasionally I can figure things out pretty quickly.
This was one of those times.
"You don't want me to leave."
The expression in her eyes spoke one whole hell of a lot more than she said with her mouth. "I was hoping you'd want to stay."
I knew that whatever I said next I would have to live with for the rest of my life. If I told her I had to go, I'd have to go. If I said I would like to stay, I'd have to stay.
With the Good Lord as my Witness, I had no idea what to say to her.
The phone didn't ring to bail me out. No delivery guy came in. Mr. Krendel didn't show up with an important decision about the building.
I was going to have to say something.
"Well." I started.
I looked at the stack of resumes, then back up at her.
I saw her the same way I had that first night at the house.
She was nearly as tall as I was with a figure that took my breath away. Her coal black hair was shining in the light coming through the window with an almost blue tinge. Her bright eyes were moist with the tears I could feel her fighting back.
There was no choice at all.
"I would like to stay."
She was staring into my eyes. "With me?" She said, then she corrected herself. "With us."
She dropped the small basket of cleaning stuff and ran across the room and fell into my arms.
I knew I was staying.
Then I had to figure out a way to ask Mr. Salmon if it was OK if I hired myself as general manager.
End Section Two