Tales from the Competition Barbecue Trenches

May 7, 2013

When it comes to competitive barbecue contests, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is one of the big daddies. Last month more than a hundred thousand visitors descended upon Tom Lee Park alongside the Mississippi River to watch over 250 teams compete for over $110,000 in prize money at the 36th edition of the contest. I was lucky enough to be “embedded” with two competition teams for the week preceding the final judging on Saturday. While Memphis in May is a super event for barbecue aficionados to see some of their heroes as well as upstart teams cook for the big bucks, the most interesting stories take place inside the team tents, often during the late night and early morning hours when visitors aren’t allowed in the park. Pull back the tent flap and take a look inside>.

Wednesday-Thursday: Preparations

7233520382_72a827386b“When we came up with the name, we all agreed to cut off one of our legs to show our dedication to the team. I went first. Guess the joke’s on me…” The truth is that Bringle lost his leg to cancer while he was a teenager, but with his special replacement limb wrapped in a fiberglass sheath tattooed with images of pigs, it would be unwise to bet against him in an ass-kicking contest.

Bringle’s team of helpers trickled in over the course of the middle of the week, but when the back-breaking work of setting up the compound took place during the heat of Wednesday and Thursday, there were only about eight of us to handle the labor. A heavy newly fabricated smoker had to be rolled into position next to the larger trailer rig where most of the cooking took place and several coats of paint were applied to dress up their prototype cooker, which they hoped to sell more of after the event.

Metal shelves were assembled and stocked with pantry supplies in a very specific system. Or rather in four very specific systems since each volunteer seemed to have his own best idea as to where the vinegar and duct tape should be stashed. Part of the crew set about decorating the tent for visits by sponsors, friends, other competing teams and most importantly the judges on Saturday. This meant hanging pictures of team members and family on the walls, assembling a white picket fence complete with potted plants across the front opening of the tent and stringing festive Christmas lights along the ceiling. A 20-foot salad bar was also rolled into the middle of the tent, but more on that later…

River Watchin'Suddenly after several hours of back-breaking work, Bringle suddenly called out, “Boys, we’ve got some river watching to do,” and folding chairs were dragged out in front of the tent to sit alongside the pathway that featured a beautiful view of “The Old Man.” Two wireless microphones were also produced and the p/a system inside the tent was cranked up to eleven to share the Peg Leggers Spotify mix of ass-kicking Southern music with passers-by and to allow Bringle to provide a running commentary of the action like an acerbic clown in a dunking booth at the fair.

After a few hours of people watching and cooking an amazing meal of impossibly thick strip steaks for the team members, Bringle jumped on his motorized scooter to pay a quick visit to some of his favorite competing teams and make his way up the bluff to his hotel room in downtown Memphis.

The other team that I was working with was probably better known by most readers, if not necessarily within the world of barbecue. They were certainly better financed and accommodated. The Fatback Collective is the brain child of Nick Pihakis and Drew Robinson of Jim n’ Nick’s Bar-B-Q, John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Donald Link, a James Beard Award-winning chef out of New Orleans. Jim n’ Nick’s is a very successful and well-run barbecue chain based out of Birmingham, AL and a big supporter of the SFA. As part of that support, the assembled crew decided over glasses of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon that they might be able to assemble a super-team of chefs and pitmasters to change the way that the world of competitive barbecue looks at cooking pigs, especially heritage breed hogs.

Rogers and Brock tend the hogThe team they put together included the four organizers plus a team of renowned chefs: Stephen Stryjewski, Link’s business partner from New Orleans, John Currence from Oxford, MS, Sean Brock of Charleston, SC, Ryan Prewitt from Herbsaint in New Orleans, Ashley Christensen from Raleigh, NC and Rob McDaniel from Lake Martin in Alabama. The team recognized that they needed some experienced pitmasters to teach these great chefs the way of the fire, so they recruited three of the best, Pat Martin from Nolensville, TN, Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC and Rodney Scott from Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC. Finally the roster was filled out with interested friends and family members like Pihakis’s son Nicholas, Edge’s son Jess and respected rancher Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, GA. Grantland.com writer Wright Thompson was added as the official scribe of the operation.

There was no doubt that this group could cook, and in fact they had finished in third place last year in their first attempt at cooking a whole hog in competition. The pressure to move up in the standings was enormous, but you couldn’t tell it by looking at their tent area on Wednesday night. In fact, there was no tent at all as wires had gotten crossed between the team and the contractors who were supposed to assemble the site at what had been named “Camp Fatback.”

After several heated phone calls, what looked like a team from the Corps of Engineers descended upon the Fatback Collection’s designated area and worked all night under bright construction lights to erect a very handsome and commodious site to cook and play over the next few days. But as of midnight with only a short bit of fencing and some flooring completed, Sam Jones (who’s always good for a quote) described the site this way, “I thought we were setting up a petting zoo or something.”

Thursday morning arrived sooner than anyone hoped for, especially the workers who had been busting ass all night on the Fatback camp. But soon enough, decoration and organization began in earnest in the large tent. The group actually had a stylist who created a comfortable version of a campsite, complete with cots to rest on, a crafts table where visitors could make personalized leather bracelets and draw pictures to decorate the walls and a fully stocked bar complete with full time bartenders. Funny, I don’t remember that last detail at Camp Whippoorwill.

Competitors were required to attend cooks’ meetings in the morning for each category that they intended to enter. There they learned the timing of food inspection to ensure that their meat was stored at safe temperatures and had not been marinated in advance, judging procedures including the sequence of visits from three different judges and the scoring system. The final detail was a mass synchronization of watches with the official Memphis in May competition clock to ensure that entries would not be turned in late. For most competitors like Bringle, this was all old hat, but the Fatback team was still learning their way around the ropes and took copious notes.

Most of Thursday was spent entertaining and feeding VIP visitors and patrons who had purchased a “Pit Pass” that allowed access to the inner sanctums of some of the team tents. During the course of the day, members of the Fatback team began to descend on Memphis and Tom Lee Park from around the south, like the Superfriends being summoned to Justice League Headquarters. There were lots of hugs between old friends as plans for the weekend were shared with team members.

John Currence was a steadfast presence for the team, despite the fact that he had to return to Oxford on Thursday night to preside over the weekend-long 20th birthday celebration of his restaurant City Grocery. Fortunately Johnny Snack made some big bad chicken livers for all assembled in the Fatback tent before he left. Surrounded by a constant stream of delicious food being prepared and laid out by these amazing chefs, sometimes it seemed like Sean Brock’s sleeve tattoo of vegetables represented the only legumes in the tent.

Three Fatback team members who were taking the planning procedures in stride were the pitmaster law firm of Martin, Scott and Jones. The team actually had plans to cook three different hogs on Friday and Saturday, so the talents of this trio were definitely expected to be crucial.

Lily, Martin and PhiakisIn the late afternoon, Nick Pihakis gathered a traveling party of Fatbackers to visit some of the booths of their competitors. The group stopped by the tents of notable pitmasters like Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson’s award winning restaurant in Decatur, AL and Brad Orrison of The Shed in Ocean Springs, MS. As the large group crowded into their competitors’ tents that weren’t nearly as large as Camp Fatback, the atmosphere was still convivial, even as friends began to parley and Pihakis peppered Lilly with requests for advice.

Lilly was very open with his suggestions about cooking methods and sauces, but I imagine he was holding back more than a little bit when it cane down to the details. When the Fatback Collective made their way to the Peg Leg Porker’s tent it was after dark by the time worlds collided.

Remember that salad bar? It has quite a reputation around Memphis in May. During the day, it serves as a convenient place to put out trays of succulent pulled pork shoulder meat and tangy slaw and beans as side dishes for visitors who drop into the tent for a quick bite. But at night, that salad bar becomes the base for the biggest rolling party at Memphis in May: The Peg Leg Ice Luge.

Constructing the lugeBringle stores the salad bar on the driveway of his suburban Nashville home, much to the consternation of his wife and most probably his neighbors. “Three hundred and sixty days of the year that thing’s an eyesore, but here in Memphis it’s a damned rock star!” It doesn’t hurt that the Peg Leg team is sponsored by Jim Beam, so a seemingly endless supply of bottles of various liquor products were available to be poured down the trench that the team carved into a huge block of ice into the waiting mouths of anyone game enough to participate.

Invitations to the Ice Luge party have been extended to friends of the team, but most of them knew about it anyway. Ad hoc invitations were also offered via Bringle’s Mr. Microphone set-up to various comely barbecue fans taking a passeggiata along the river that might happen to bring them within range of the tent.

Capt. Bringle mounts the salad barLugingAt 8:30, to the strains of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Bringle donned his signature shortie Dickie jumpsuit and climbed onto a folding chair astride the top of the luge while team members turned on the disco lights and push the salad bar to the front of the tent. Members of the Peg Leg team took the first ceremonial ice-cold shots of Beam poured down their gullets by their captain. In truth, the shots were pretty small, and the atmosphere and pumping music did more to excite the giddy crowd than the cumulative effect of a couple of turns at the bottom of the luge. Yes, I’m speaking from experience, I was a team member, remember?

Apparently in past years, this party was even wilder with more of a Mardi Gras attitude encouraging young ladies to share their “assets” while partaking of the luge. The guys still talked a good game, and piles of bills were stacked on the top of the ramp as a bounty for anyone willing to flash. In the end, it was pretty much a PG13 event with less exposure than a New Orleans balcony on Easter Sunday. One enterprising young lady did look at the $160 freezing to the ice and looked over her shoulder at her boyfriend standing behind her. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded, whereupon she gave a quick flash that the Mythbusters would have needed their high-speed camera to spot, grabbed the money and left the tent. General consensus was that everyone hoped they had a nice dinner out somewhere in town with their ill-gotten gains.

There were definitely members of the Fatback team at the bottom of the luge taking their turns, and in one case on top of the luge serving as a replacement pourer for Bringle. For at least a couple of hours, competitors let their guards down and remembered what good friends the Southern chef community was. Who had won previous Memphis in Mays and who was a James Beard winner was ignored in the name of camaraderie and the spirit of a damned good time. But deep down, everyone knew that on Friday the real work would begin.

Friday: Shit Gets Serious

Several members of the Peg Leg Porkers slept in the tent overnight on Friday, partially to guard the cooking equipment but mainly because they didn’t actually have a hotel room or the energy to make it up the hill to downtown Memphis after the evening’s festivities. As dawn broke a few souls took a quick bath in an inflatable kiddie pool which a nearby team had set up in front of their tent to stay cool during the hot days. Others simply took what they called “a golden shower.” Not the obscene x-rated event you might be thinking of, a Memphis in May golden shower is simply puffing a cloud of Gold Bond Medicated Powder in the air and walking through it to soak up the sweat and the grime that had accumulated from a few days of mid-south humidity.

By Friday, Tom Lee Park smelled like a frat house floor, but busy sanitation workers had at least managed to clean up the mountains of trash which had accumulated outside many of the tents overnight. Apparently, the Peg Leggers weren’t the only folks who threw a helluva party for friends and family the night before. The most important shoulder sandwich bribe of the day turned out not to be for a competition judge. A plate of tasty barbecue presented to the guys who pumped out the Port-O-Lets assured an extra visit for clean up every day.

Pulling the shoulderFriday was the first real competition day, and the morning was spent cleaning up the detritus and dressing the tent for judges’ visits on Saturday. So much of competition barbecue cooking is about timing. When smoking a pork shoulder, the internal temperature will rise slowly to about 160 degrees and plateau there for hours while the internal fats render out and flavor the meat. Teams want that to happen as gently as possible, so vigilance is critical. After the fat is mostly rendered out and the collagen begins to break down, the temperature can quickly spike. At about 185 degrees, the pork should be perfect for pulling into the delicious strands of meat that typify perfect barbecue. Above that temperature, the meat can quickly turn gray and tough, so the fine line between perfect pork and inedible jerky is a matter of precise attention.

With many ancillary categories such as poultry, tomato and vinegar sauces, hot wings, seafood and “exotic” all coming due for judge turn-in with a couple of hours on Friday afternoon, the action around the smokers was like a complicated dance as meats went on and came off the grills as teams sought to minimize the time that the smoker doors were open, which would let out the crucial flavoring smoke.

Peg Leg Team captain Carey Bringle often allows other team members and sponsors to prepare their own dishes for these ancillary categories as he concentrates on the pork shoulder which is the team’s official entry into the Championship division. The Peg Leg Porkers intended to enter the poultry, hot wings, seafood, sauce and exotic categories. When I asked him what his exotic entry would be, he replied, “I don’t know yet. We might have to run to Publix or something.” Seat of the pants cooking at its best.

Hog on the asadoOver at Camp Fatback, the plans for the exotic division were much more concrete. As the only category that they planned to enter on Friday, the team members were concentrating on a truly special piece of meat. Craig Rogers runs Border Springs Farm in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. There he produces some of the most delicious lamb available and is a favorite among the chef members of the Fatback Collective who have bestowed him with the nickname “Shepherd.”

Rogers brought one of his finest specimens of lamb for the team to prepare in a very special way. Many of the team members took a field trip to Uruguay last year as part of a cultural exchange to learn the asado cooking methods that local cooks use to prepare whole steers. The team constructed a steel cross asado device over an open pit at the back of Camp Fatback and mounted the beautiful lamb crucifixion-style for a dramatic presentation. The lamb cooked slowly over the fire under the watchful eyes of the master chefs and pitmasters of the Fatback Collective until it produced what they agreed was some of the most succulent and flavorful meat they had ever tasted.

Ultimately, the exotic category was won by a team named Crosstown Neighborhood Barbecue who submitted a dish they called “Rat Bastards,” basically a cheese-stuffed jalapeño pepper wrapped with bacon and grilled. Apparently it is possible to overthink some of these categories.

Teams cooking in the whole hog category needed to get their big pigs on the smoker by at least noon on Friday in order to ensure that they would have at least 24 hours before their trial by fire. Some teams cooking whole hog for the first time were puzzled figuring out the logistics of wrestling a 150-lb. carcass covered in slippery sauce and rub through the door of their smoker which seemed so big when the designed it.

The Fatback Collective had plenty of manpower and experience thanks to their pitmasters who cook as many as twenty hogs a day in their own restaurants. One hog was positioned on the asado frame, while one each was placed in Pat Martin’s smoker and the Jim n’ Nick’s competition rig. Then began the serious business of sauce selection.

Each chef and pitmaster member of the Fatback team contributed at least one sauce to the trial. With three hogs all cooking using slightly different methods, the desired taste profile was still up in the air at cooking time. The chefs met around a large table to taste each sauce and their talented palates led the way through a spirited discussion about what they individually liked and what the judges might ultimately prefer. After much deliberation, a preliminary decision was made by the Collective, with the fallback position that they might change their minds when they tasted the pork when it finally came out of the fire.

Camp FatbackThe rest of the day was spent feeding VIP visitors and sponsors to both the Fatback and Peg Leg tents. After three days of wandering around the complicated maze of tents and booths with landmarks that were so hard to distinguish between since every team has some punny name referring to pork or pigs, the best solution was just to keep walking around and soaking up the sights and sites until you lucked upon your ultimate destination.

Taking the direct route from point A to point B would have denied me from discovering that the preferred artists of choice among competition barbeque cookers soundtracks are definitely Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown. And I might have missed the entertaining sight of a few miscreants driving golf balls off of the levee into the Mississippi until they were shut down by a Coast Guard boat cruising by.

Teams knew that they would be up all night tending to their smokers and meat, so the partying on Friday was at least a little more subdued. But jello shots did emerge at the Fatback tent as experienced chefs engaged in some juvenile silliness to take the edge off of the day of judgment that was coming on Saturday. Sleep, when it came, was fitful at best.

Saturday: Judgment Day

Even more so than on Friday, Saturday was all about timing. If the fire is too hot, your meat may be ready too soon or it may be overcooked, ensuring a dry, stringy offering for the styrofoam trays which go to the blind judging in the massive tent near the main stage. Conversely, if teams tried to time things too exactly, they might be faced with undercooked pork which is a non-starter in competition barbecue.

The morning was spent tidying up the team tents (again!), but for real this time. After the blind judging, each team would be visited by three judges, each making their own individual trip to three tents like Diogenes seeking the ultimate barbecue truth. The appearance of the cooking area and the presentation of the meat is an important part of the final score, so teams scurried around, tidying up and rearranging furniture like a college student before parents weekend.

The cleaning process was made more difficult by the fact that most team members were working on only a few hours of sleep after an evening of firewatcher duty. Tablecloths were spread across empty kegs to make end tables, and at one point the Peg Leg Porker team made the brilliant decision to simply roll their new smoker into the middle of the tent and drop a fake canvas wall behind it to hide all their junk.

Meat must be presented to the judges on the grill, and the Peg Leg rig was difficult to access at the very back of their cook site behind the pantry. So this was a much better solution than trying to maneuver around with the judges, who might very well be older or, shall we say, full-figured thanks to their affection for barbecue.

At the judging tent, volunteers waited to see if they had been selected for blind judging in the tent or would be making the site visits. Both positions had their advantages. If you were a blind judge, you probably got to taste more great meat and could participate in more categories. On-site judges, however, were treated to the pig and pony show where they were applauded by the team upon entering and exiting the tent and given the royal treatment while they sat at the table to taste the pitmasters’ wares.

The judge presentations were choreographed but not necessarily rehearsed. Carey Bringle was a master at the process, having competed in numerous competitions and given his spiel to many barbecue fans who visited his tent or who he encountered at catering gigs. His easy style and Southern charm made him a natural as he asked and answered questions about the judges’ preferences and even happened to mention that his sauce, rub and not to mention the smoker right in front of you are all available for purchase.

Christensen and Martin with judgeOver at the Fatback Collective tent, the tension was rising as final preparations were made. With no established team leader with the judge presentation experience of Bringle, the team decided on Pat Martin and Ashley Christensen to be their primary spokespeople. The plan was for Martin and Christensen to greet the judges like Ward and June Cleaver at the front of the tent and show them around the cooking area. After introducing them to all the team members, Martin and Christensen would sit down at a picnic table and share their passion for heritage hogs and traditional cooking methods.

Of the three hogs that the Fatback Collective cooked, Donald Link’s asado-style pig was intended mainly for show and to feed the team at a banquet after the awards ceremony. The real competition pig was going to come from either the Jim n’ Nick’s rig or Martin’s smaller smoker. In the end, the team selected the pig from the big rig. They stood around and picked meat from various parts of the animal to build the perfect box for judging, and their eyes rolled back as they commented on the depth of flavors and textures that they had drawn out of the pig. After another quick team consultation, a final sauce preparation was chosen to accompany the meat.

Bringle’s decisions were much more autocratic, including the last-minute application of a spicy-sweet Asian glaze. “Sometimes we just make this shit up as we go.” Pulling a single shoulder for judging is much less time-consuming than picking a whole pig, but the Peg Leg team exercised just as much care. Memphis in May judges have very particular opinions about fat to meat ratios and the flavor profile of championship-winning sauces, so experience counts. “It’s a crap shoot,” said Bringle. “You can think that you have the winning entry, but then some random judge in a tent somewhere can decide that they just don’t like your style.”

The potential capriciousness of the judges began to weigh on the Fatback Team as they awaited their judges’ visits. Where last year their first effort thrust them into the finals, it was beginning to sink in that they could do everything exactly the same way this year, or even better, and still not finish higher in the standings. The pressure started to mount on Martin as he powered down a frosty can of liquid courage and cranked up a few songs by his musical muse, Waylon Jennings, to pump himself up. In deference to nearby teams that weren’t as rambunctious as the Fatback Team, eventually the music was turned off and Martin declared himself ready.

Bringle with judgeBringle charmed all three of the judges that visited his tent, and they all seemed to leave happy and no longer hungry. Even after the visits were over, there was no time to relax or celebrate since competitors do not know for about an hour if they have made the finals. As much as teams would have like to finally let their hair down after a tense day, the possibility of one more visit from three finalist judges necessitated that the tent remain clean and set for one more presentation. So there was nothing to do but sit in front of the tent and watch the river roll by while waiting for a visit from a golf cart from the judges’ tent to notify the three lucky finalists. Perhaps some beer was drunk too.

The cart stopped two tents to the left of the Peg Leg Porkers to give the Red Hot Smokers the happy news. Their cooking area was already festooned with trophies, so this was no surprise. The Peg Leggers could still hear the cheers from the finalists as the golf cart moved past without slowing on their way to deliver the finalist notification to another team. “Well, that’s it boys,” consoled Bringle. They may not have won the category, but they didn’t lose the party.

Eventually, it was their neighbors at the Red Hot Smokers tent that brought home the huge trophy in the pork shoulder division. Even though they finished a very close second in the preliminary round of judging, their performance in the final presentation apparently was enough to vault them over The People’s Republic of Swina.

At Camp Fatback, the first judge arrived at the tent and walked through a receiving line of applauding Jim n’ Nick’s employees and friends of the team. She was a small woman whose entire hand was swallowed up by Martin’s hearty handshake. The judge was very quiet and seemed a little bit uncomfortable as she was introduced to all of these celebrated chefs who were standing around the smokers and the flaming flying asado pig. While she might not have known the details of the cooking resumés of the team members, there was no mistaking the passion they felt for the process or the care that they had put into the preparation of the best possible whole hog.

DeliberatingWhen she sat down at the table with her hosts, the judge talked very little and asked few questions, preferring to nibble at small bits of the lovely plate that had been presented in front of her. Martin preached about the importance of supporting local farmers and the reverence that the entire team felt toward the protectors of heritage hog breeds like Berkshires and Mangalitsas. Christensen was softer in her interaction with the judge, but neither of them could read her experienced judge’s poker face. After using up all of her allotted visit time, the judge retreated timidly and quickly from the tent while the team rushed around resetting the tableau and making quick adjustments to their sales pitch. None of the Fatback Collective members noticed the woman standing in the shadow of a tree just outside the tent flaps with her head bowed over her judging sheets scrawling notes and entering her scores. I saw her working and immediately decided that her vibe was not good.

After two more judges’ visits, the Fatback team found themselves in the same waiting game as the Peg Leg Porkers had been in an hour earlier. Nerves had been replaced by relief and pride in a job well done, but everyone was still scanning for golf carts in their peripheral vision. A buffet of Gus’s Spicy Fried Chicken was quickly set up, and team members, volunteers, friends and family gorged themselves on the delicious crispy poultry.

I asked Sean Brock what he was thinking. He said, “all of us together could not have made that pig taste better than it did, and that’s amazing.” The Fatback Collective was assembled with the specific purpose of promoting the use of heritage hogs, cooking the most delicious pig that they could and to have a helluva good time while accomplishing the first two charges. In the end, they certainly succeeded at all three.

Unfortunately, they did not improve on last year’s finish in the Whole Hog category at Memphis in May, or even make the finals again. They finished 14th out of 38 teams, but only a few points out of the top 10. Melissa Cookston and her Yazoo Delta Q team won Whole Hog for an incredible third year in a row. Clearly, Cookston knows what the judges are looking for. The members of the Fatback Collective promise that they will return to see if they can figure that out next year. Don’t bet against them.


Obligatory Yearly Placeholder Post

August 22, 2011

Yeah, I’ll bet that got your attention. Since there are still some new readers coming to the site drawn by Google searches that share my misspelling of the word “racoon” and a surprising amount of folks hunting down information about retired Nashville weathermen, I thought I’d welcome them to the site and let them know that the good stuff is linked over there on the right under “The Driest Spots.”

There you can learn more than you would ever want to know about a complete stranger.

And they don’t come too much stranger than me.

Have fun poking around.

There’s No Accounting for Taste

March 24, 2008

A year ago I wrote my most viewed post ever.  By a factor of ten, this post still dominates my stat counter.

What could it be, oh gentle reader, that has so captivated the small but deranged loyal following of The Dry Spot?

Was it my first, and probably worst “embarassing stuff about myself” story?

Or could it have been one of my harrowing tales of near death experiences?

Did the blogiverse favor one of my travleogues?

Maybe it was one of my tales of misspent youth.

It probably wasn’t one of my navel gazing moments or odes to my pets.

Nope, I’ll end the suspense (such that it is…)

My most viewed piece of writing ever was my bourbon and allergy medicine inspired “Ode to a Bradford Pear” from last spring before the late hard freeze killed most of the pretty foliage in a hundred mile blast radius around my backyard.

Apparently, the poem got picked up by a group of invasive horticultural species botanists who flooded it with link love and started a heated debate among that extremely passionate geeky community.  They reposted it to dozens of websites that had hundreds of comments about whether Bradfords were truly a parasite or not.  Next to nobody actually commented on the poem itself, except to point out that I was obviously not a professional scientist.


No shit, Sherlock.  I’m just a homeowner with allergies and an ear for the turn of a phrase who thinks it’s stupid to plant trees that explode at the first gust of a March wind.


March 6, 2008

I hardly ever get tagged for memes. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I blog so sporadically that I’m not really a dependable provider of content. I’m sure I’ve skipped some tags in the past, but one of my most favorite early posts was the result of a meme that I begged Ivy to let me try.

But in the last couple of days I got tagged by two of my absolute favorite bloggers ever, Sista Smiff and NewsComa. As a matter of fact, outside of Knuck who I’ve known for more than a decade before I even heard of blogs, these two ladies are probably my closest online friends. So when they talk…I answer.

Coma’s meme sounded easy. She asked for me to:

1. Pick up the nearest book.

2. turn to page 123.

3. find the 5th sentence.

4. post the next 3 sentences.

5. tag 5 people.

Unfortunately, the closest book to me right now is the one we keep under the DVD player, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” Page 122 is a review of “It Happened One Night,” and page 123 is a full page picture of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Actually, I think NewsComa would think this is groovy, so here’s the picture:


But in order to keep within the spirit of the meme and actually contribute some literary content to the blogosphere, I went into our library (hallway with a bookshelf from Target) and grabbed the first book at random. It was a gift from my best friend that is on the top of my reading stack after I catch up with five weeks of Entertainment Weekly, “1491” by Charles Mann.

Let’s see…page 123…5th sentence…next three sentences…good…here we go.

“At the time of the conference at least a quarter of the Haudenosaunee were former captives. At great personal risk, many Indian leaders even after they knew that influenza was in Montreal. Dozens died.”

Err…I guess it needs context. I’d better get caught the heck up with EW before the new post-writers’ strike shows start arriving on the networks or I’ll never get back to reading all the cool books that DogDoc has given me over the past year.

Sista’s meme is even more self-referential. It asks me to:

** Go back to your archives and link to your five favorite posts.
Link One: must be about family
Link Two: must be about friends
Link Three: must be about yourself
Link Four: must be about something you love
Link Five: can be anything you choose

Hmmm…considering I haven’t updated my blogroll or my “The Driest Spots” list in over a year (lazy, lazy, lazy) this might be a good way for me to get off my ass and actually comb through the back catalog and introduce both my new readers to some of the golden oldies.

Here’s the family post.

And over here is the one about friends.

Something about me.

A post about something I love.

And dealer’s choice. Fingers crossed, I think I’ll get to take this trip again this year.


Continuing my reputation as the black hole where memes go to die, I won’t tag anybody. Consider yourself lucky, technoverse.


Hug a Surfer for Me Today

April 7, 2007

Five years ago today, I almost died.

Not “I farted while carrying the casket and almost died from embarrassment” died or “I had so many Jagerbombs last night I feel like I might die” died. I mean “going down for the last time, pushing up the daisies, step into the light, shed your mortal coil, singing with the choir celestial” died.

First, some back story. Five years ago, I spotted a little blurb at the bottom of the front page of the business section of “The Tennessean.” Rotary International was looking for applicants for a one month group study exchange to the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina in the southernmost portion of the country. As part of an international exchange program, Rotary would sponsor four professionals under the age of 35 to travel with one Rotarian and stay with families, speak at Rotary meetings about Nashville and work in local companies in professions which were similar to what we did here in Tennessee.

I figured I had a good chance to get accepted since I studied Portuguese in college and wrote my honors thesis on Brazilian labor policies. I’m pretty well traveled and not uncomfortable with public speaking. The hitch to the situation was the fact that the ad appeared in the paper on only one day.

It was September 11, 2001.

Not many people were real excited about international travel on that day. There were only four applicants for four spots. I was in. Not that it was easy to convince RUABelle that it would be a good idea for me to leave her for a month and basically be incommunicado the whole time. In fact, I was only able to make two phone calls and access the internet three or four times during the entire time I was gone.

But she relented. Actually, I’ve wanted to go to Brazil ever since I started studying their history and culture in college twenty years ago, so I was going regardless. I think she sensed that and figured it would be better to just accept it rather than fight. Plus, this was the trip when I gave her The Rabbit.

The group consisted of our sponsor, who was then the head of the biz school at Belmont, a young female architect who had spent a couple of months in Brazil the year before, a Colombian woman who worked in HR at Dollar General and another young lady who was an attorney. Yes, you’ll note that it was a married guy, three single young women and me. That didn’t make RUABelle very happy either.

Our language skills varied. The architect was fairly fluent. The woman from Colombia (South America, not the town near Shelbyville) spoke Spanish and could comprehend just about everything she heard and could respond in a mélange of the two languages which is formally referred to as “Portañol.” I was rusty, but could understand most of what was going on and communicate well enough to participate in conversations. I had the verbal skills on the level of about a third grader. Consequently, I spent a lot of time talking to children while I was there.

Our other two team members weren’t as lucky. They had no background in Portuguese and didn’t really have an ear for languages. They compensated by speaking English v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and LOUDLY. So we wrote their presentations out phonetically for them so they could fake their way past the groups of aged Rotarians who we spoke to 3-4 times per week. They prayed there wouldn’t be any Q & A which would expose their lack of language skills. When people started to ask us questions, I just pulled out a guitar and we all sang “Rocky Top.” Yes, we did. Luckily, in Brazil they serve big communal bottles of beer at each table at most Rotary meetings.

We were generally very supportive of our two colleagues who were pretty much unaware of what was going on around them. Especially since we were often split up to stay in different homes and most of our hosts spoke no English. But I have to admit that we did have a little fun at their expense every now and then. For instance, the Portuguese word for lawyer is “advogado.” We waited through a couple weeks of giggling at the presentations before we finally broke down and corrected our resident attorney who had been starting her speech with, “Hello, my name is Beverly and I am an avocado.”

So anyway, back to the almost dying thing. We had been in Brazil for about a week in the state capital, Florianopolis. Floripa, as it is called, is a beautiful island off the southeast coast of Brazil. We were attending the District Rotary Conference where we were displayed like zoo animals to the assembled conventioneers. After a few days of sitting through boring presentations about public service campaigns that only a few of us could even understand small portions of, we decided to play hooky for an afternoon.

We had been running pretty much 24/7 for the first week as our hosts toured us around the city and entertained us at night. Mine even took me to a whorehouse the third night I was there and left me sitting in the bar while he went upstairs with an exotic local after I politely declined her “hospitality.” But that’s a story for another time.

The first five days I was in Brazil, I went to sleep at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. I was actually afraid that I was on a pace to have to wake up before I went to bed. We really needed the break.

Plus we hadn’t visited what Florianopolis was famous for: the beaches. Floripa is renowned for having 42 different beaches, each with different characteristics and personalities. The beaches on the western side of the island were secluded and quiet, sheltered from the wind. The beaches on the east side were known as some of the great surfing beaches in the world with the Atlantic providing consistently excellent breaks and pounding waves.

Local residents tended to choose a beach which fit their personality and stick with it. Rather than saying, “that’s not my bag” or “that’s not my cup of tea,” Floripans say “não é a minha praia.” Literally, “that’s not my beach.”

But we wanted to see all of them. Or at least as many as we could see in an afternoon. Our group split up and I jumped in a car with Beverly the avocado and a friend of my host, Roberto. Roberto had lived in the United States for a few years, so his English was excellent. But he was a strange bird, kind of creepy and a little bit grabby. I could never figure out whether he was hitting on Beverly or me.

We traveled in his tiny Ford KA (picture a cross between a riding mower and a Star Trek shuttle craft) for a driving tour of the first few beaches. We knew we had a lot of ground to cover, so we didn’t even get out of the car at most of them. Roberto had a plan, and we didn’t know where the hell we were going anyway, so we just went with the flow. We were unaware that Roberto’s plan revolved around getting shitfaced.

He took us to an incredible beach called Joaquina. It is the site of many international surfing competitions and the talent was everywhere. By “talent,” I mean world-class surfers. Oh, and unbelievably gorgeous women walking around in bikinis so small that they are colloquially referred to as “fio dental”-dental floss. Apparently in the past few years, the trend has been for swimsuit designers to use even less fabric. The fio dental has given way to a suit called the “Cepacol.” It gets into places that even dental floss can’t reach.

Needless to say, I was quite content to sit with Beverly under an umbrella and drink non-alcoholic batidas out of pineapples like Thurston and Lovey Howell. We were easily the palest and fattest people on the beach. Hell, probably in the area code.


Roberto sat next to us in full sun turning redder as we watched from a combination of the tropical solar rays, the lecherous looks he was giving to the long and lean and tan and lovely girls as they walked by (and maybe the surfer dudes?) and the numerous beers he was pounding.


After about and hour and five beers, Roberto asked whether we wanted to go next door to his favorite beach, Gahleta. He said not many people go there because you can’t drive to it. It necessitated a mile long walk along the beach from Joaquina and required clambering over some rocks and along some craggy cliffs.


It sounded a little ambitious for two out of shape Nashvillagers until he added, “And it’s a nude beach.”

“I’m in. Finish up your damn umbrella drink, Bev.”

Despite what you might think, there aren’t a lot of nude beaches in Brazil. They think it’s a lot sexier to hide just a little bit of skin rather than let it all hang out, and I have to say I usually agree with them. But I had seen some incredibly beautiful women at Joaquina and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to take a peek at what lie behind the curtain.

I should have heeded the Wizard of Oz’s advice. After a half hour treacherous hike during which Roberto managed to drink three more beers, we arrived at Gahleta. It was secluded and the view of the raging surf was amazing.





And it was a nude beach. For old dudes.

With their sagging scrota and bushy gray pubes, it looked like a group of twenty men playing hot potato with a basket of squirrels. Roberto didn’t seem disappointed and Beverly was really amused.

We decided to at least make the best of it and go swimming. Beverly had a swimsuit on and Roberto was wearing running shorts, so they were set. I had not had as much foresight. But I figured when in Rome and began to strip down. When I got to my boxers, I realized that they had kind of a Hawaiian floral print to them, and they looked like a bathing suit anyway so I stopped short of full-on commando. (Foreshadowing-I still have those boxers and wear them occasionally. But never on an airplane. Because I call them “the boxer shorts of death.”)

The water was wonderful, clear and warm as a bathtub. We body surfed in the shallows while the professional surfers shredded a hundred meters further out. The sets of waves came every 20 seconds or so and we jumped up and down in place to keep our heads above water (and Roberto’s beer dry). Beverly isn’t much over five foot, so she had to jump higher than we did.

We were only in about waist deep water (for me, not the avocado) when I commented, “Man, this is great. These waves are a blast, but they don’t really give you much time to rest between them.” Right as these words left my mouth another set of waves came in and I jumped up like I had a hundred times before in the past half hour. But this time when I came back down, my feet didn’t hit sand. And neither did Beverly’s or Roberto’s.

I looked over at Bev and immediately saw a look of panic on her face. It must have been like looking in a mirror because she desperately said in a choked voice, “We’re in trouble.” Roberto actually threw away his beer bottle, so we knew it was serious.

I flashed back to first aid training:

1. Don’t panic.

2. Don’t let somebody else drown you .

3. Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip.

4. Float on your back.

I tried all four of these in about five seconds. Unfortunately, I’m not that strong of a swimmer. I’m an open water scuba diver, but the 1000 meter swim test has always been the hardest part of any certification test I’ve ever taken. And to make matters worse, I’m a sinker. I doubt it’s because of my low body fat percentage, but when I try to float on my back, my feet head toward the bottom and the best I can manage is to bob like a bottle with a message and a cork in it. Once, I was on a fishing boat twenty miles into the Gulf and remarked to the first mate that I wasn’t that good at swimming. He told me, “In that case, if you fall overboard I recommend you swim straight to the bottom and run as fast as you can toward shore.”

This meant that the incoming waves were breaking over my head and I had to swim straight up to get my head above each crest. When I would hit the apex of each surge, I would try to spin around to see where Beverly and Roberto were. We tried to stay close, but we were losing ground as we each fought our individual battles with Poseidon.

I could see that Beverly was able to float on her back better than I was, but she was whimpering and gagging on salt water as each wave broke over her head. I told her she was doing great (Liar!) and to just hold on. Roberto was trying to swim back toward shore, but even with a full freestyle stroke aimed dead at the beach I actually saw the rip drag him backwards right past me. I reached out to grab onto him, but he wisely fought me off in an act of self-preservation.

I was utterly spent by this time. I couldn’t spin around at the top of the waves anymore for a status check. It wasn’t that I didn’t care how they were doing; I had just reached the realization that I was in a life or death situation, and it didn’t look good for the home team. I was spending more time under the water than above it, barely able to power my upturned face through the surface at the top of the waves for a quick gasp of air.

I held my breath and settled under the water looking up at the sun filtering through a few feet of brine through my bloodshot and sore eyes. When I felt the rising surge of water start to pull me up I would kick with everything I had to get my face exposed long enough for a breath. One time, I didn’t estimate the distance correctly and ended up a few inches short of the surface. I started to sink back down without exchanging the CO2 in my aching lungs for the precious O2 that I desperately needed. Even though the current was not supporting me anymore and was instead pulling me down and backwards farther from the shore I thrashed my body in a corkscrew and flung my head out of the water like a trout rising to a fly.

I managed to suck in a mouthful that was half water and half air and it occurred to me at just that moment that I didn’t remember ever calling for help. Despite the fact that I couldn’t really spare the air, I yalped a hoarse cry. I couldn’t see Roberto or Beverly at this point, but when I came up the next time for air I could hear them also yelling for help. I was unable to contribute to the claxon as I didn’t have the lung power to do more than croak.

Like I’d always heard, I experienced a moment of peace as I realized that I couldn’t make it back to the surface too many more times. I wasn’t upset, but I did feel a little guilt. I thought, “Why did I come to Brazil? Why did I suggest we go swimming? Beverly’s so short. She must be having a terrible time. I wish I could have helped her. I wonder who will tell RUABelle. I’ll miss my dog and my cat.”

Right about as I was headed down for what I figured might be the last time I felt a tug on my arm. Then I got the most wonderful wedgie I could ever imagine as a strong tan arm grabbed on to the back of the boxer shorts of death and rolled my limp body onto a surfboard. I didn’t immediately realize what was happening and lolled off the other side of the board back into the water and started to settle toward the bottom again.

I heard exasperated Portuguese as my surf angel reached down again and plucked me up like he was pulling a beer out of the bottom of a cooler. My oxygen-deprived brain was having great difficulty making instantaneous translation, but eventually I figured out that he was telling me to paddle. I was too exhausted to assist, but I managed to form the words for “Where are my friends?” in a language that seemed pretty opaque to me at the moment. He asked how many of us there were. I told him two others, and he said “We got them.”

I collapsed face down on the board as drool flowed out of my mouth onto the sandpapery surface that smelled vaguely of feet. The surfer started to yell at me in excited Portuguese. “You have to help me paddle! We’re getting farther away! We’ll never get back! You stupid tourists are ruining our surfing!”

All I could do was to keep repeating “Obrigado! Obrigado! Obrigado!” He said, “You’re welcome. Now swim!” There wasn’t room on the board for a surfer and a beached whale, so he kicked behind us like an outboard. I had gathered enough wits to actually start to contribute to our propulsion, so we finally started to make progress. I couldn’t raise my head, so he was the navigator as well as the engine room on this particular ship.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity, we made it close enough to shore where he could roll me off the board and I could crawl up on the beach. Beverly and Roberto had already made it back (apparently their surfers were stronger than mine), and they were talking excitedly with a group of naked old men. I staggered over to them and lay down on my back on top of a flat rock. Still gasping and sweating profusely, I waited for my heart rate to drop below 200. At this point, I felt a draft and noticed that these particular boxers were “gappers.” I had apparently finally gotten into the swing of things at Gahleta. But I couldn’t have cared less at the moment.

I asked where my rescuer was so I could thank him, and somebody said “out there” and pointed past the break where the group of surfers was back at it. Well, I sure wasn’t swimming out there to see him.

I put my clothes back on and used my toe to write “Thank you. I’m sorry.” and my name in the sand. I doubt it made much of an impression on him, but at least we didn’t take up any more of his prime wave time.

The stagger back to the car took a lot longer than the first trip. Roberto stopped for a few more beers. I joined him for one. At this point, he suddenly broke down crying and said that he should never have taken us to Gahleta. He knew it was dangerous and he was drunk and don’t tell anybody in Rotary he did this and as a matter of fact three people had drowned at that same beach last week and he didn’t think he could drive us home because he was too upset and wasted.

So I gave him a sweaty hug and took his keys. Despite the fact that I hadn’t driven a stick shift in ten years and neither Beverly or I really knew the directions or even the addresses to here we were staying, somehow I managed to navigate the crazy third-world traffic of Florianopolis and get us all to our respective homes. I collapsed on the Speed Racer sheets of the twin bed in the room where I had displaced the son of my host and slept until the next morning.

Our first task the next day was a tour of an old neighborhood of Floripa. Beverly and I had agreed not to tell anybody in our group what had happened until we had moved on to the next town so as not to conjure up a shitstorm during the District Conference while all of our hosts’ grand poobahs were in town. We had heard the story of another Group Study Exchange trip to India where the cab driver had run over and killed a small boy on the way from the Calcutta Airport. He never even slowed down. They got to their first hotel, called Rotary International, went back to the airport and flew home. We didn’t want to screw up everybody else’s trip.

Our tour group walked into an ancient church and the priest walked directly up to Beverly and me and handed us prayer cards, saying “These are for you.” At least I knew that’s what he was saying. To Bev, he might as well have said “Momma go foo-foo in the banana patch.”

I looked down at the cards and realized that they were for Santo Exposito, “o santo dos causas urgentes.” See, thanks to magic of cognates, you can read a little Portuguese. “The Saint of Urgent Causes.”

I still keep it in my wallet. I look at it every now and then. It’s tucked behind my bus pass. I’ve only pulled it out and muttered the Portuguese prayer once during a particularly violent bout of turbulence on a commercial flight. The date of the festival of Santo Exposito is April 19. Remind me to make my annual donation to the Brazilian Surf Rescue Fund. And to be thankful for every day I’m alive.