“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a Happy Tune…..so no one will suspect—I’m Afraid.”
The wind was unforgiving and dark clouds were hanging low as I reached the top of one of the highest mountains outside Datong. Exhausted, I knew it was time to call-it-a-day. My watch read 5:00 PM but my body said it was much later, probably because of the early darkness.
As I unfolded my tent, I felt some concern that the strength of the wind could carry my tent--like a parasol--up and over the mountain’s edge. Making the decision to move closer to a small mountain of rocks for protection, I hurriedly connected the aluminum poles with the ground, hoisted the tent into place, and put my belongings inside.
Within minutes heavy rain began falling, forcing me inside for-- what appeared to be--a black and stormy night. As the tent fluttered and swayed around me, I prayed my weight and that of my possessions—would be enough to anchor my nylon shelter.
Using my flashlight, I followed my commitment to write each day’s activities in my journal. Proudly, I entered today’s mileage of 36 miles, noting that most of those miles were uphill! While checking the map for tomorrow’s trek, I realized the sounds of rain—rhythmically dripping off the tent---had triggered my need to pee-pee.
What an inconvenient time for a bathroom call! Going outside on such a stormy dark night seemed too much of a challenge. Smiling, I thought--- if I had male parts, I could just open the tent flap, take aim-- and in a few minutes--be settled-in for the night.
But, thinking of the “what ifs” only prolonged the evitable. Taking a deep breath, I climbed out of the tent and into the riveting, cold rain, pulled down my tights and squatted. I made the bathroom visit as short as possible so I could return to the security of the tent.
Then, as I was zipping the tent’s flap closed--I heard it--a long-winded, high-pitched cry. It reminded me of a childhood visit to the St. Louis Z00, watching a tiger endlessly pacing back and forth, howling the same cry. There it was again... a loud, anguished scream!
I panicked. The cries were coming from a high place near the tent. The next cry seemed even louder and closer. Cautiously, I pulled the zipper on the tent flap and aimed my flashlight into the blackness. I slowly aimed my light on the rocks nearby-- then stopped. There, encased in the light, were two slanted yellow eyes, a wide-opened mouth, and a full set of long, white, pointed teeth. Looking farther-down, I could see two muscular legs, dominating a platform of rock, approximately 15 feet above me. Temporarily stunned by the bright light, the massive cat appeared statuesque, as if molded from black marble. I immediately turned off the flashlight and closed the flap, my brain wildly seeking solutions to the dilemma around me. I had to do something soon… but what?
Remembering a picture book I’d seen of China’s famous animals, now extinct, I recognized the animal as either a Black Panther or Black leopard. Whichever, this was a dangerous animal that could destroy my shelter and me with one swipe of his powerful paw. Unprepared for such an encounter, all I had was a whistle and a Swiss Army knife. My heart beating wildly, I reviewed my options.
For some crazy reason, I remembered the dogs in Beijing. Outside for a daily run, I often talked to the dogs in my usual “hi, sweet puppy, you are so cute,” voice but, unlike American Dogs who wanted me to pet them, the dogs in Beijing always squealed and ran away.
I laughingly remarked to one pet owner “I’m sorry your dog doesn’t speak English.” The same pattern kept repeating itself on my journey of The Great Wall. Entering villages in search of food and water, I tried to befriend village dogs but, they ran from me just like the dogs in Beijing. Dogs, everywhere, were always my friends.....but not in China! I knew this was a dangerous animal, certainly not the same challenge as a dog but--just maybe--my look, my smell, and my voice could scare him, much-like the Chinese dogs.
I unzipped the tent opening. The faint spotlight showed the unwelcome visitor now at ground level, only a few feet away. Placing the whistle to my mouth, I blew…again and again… with all the breath I could muster. The Leopard appeared startled and ran back to his rock perch. The slanted eyes never shifted from my face. Remembering the dogs, I tried talking in my usual “sweet baby” voice. The animal twisted his head from side to side, puzzled at the unfamiliar sounds.
Five minutes later, wet and cold, I clicked off the flashlight and closed the tent opening. Both frightened and cold, I shivered as I tucked my sleeping bag around me to consider my next plan. I would open the tent flap every ten minutes and, in addition to my “doggy” dialogue, I’d interject some singing and whistle-blowing. The idea would be to keep the animal startled, confused, never-knowing what to expect. I trembled like a convict strapped in the electric chair—waiting for the warden to pull the switch!
Sensing movement outside the tent, I didn’t have a minute to spare. The animal had climbed from his ledge and joined me….with only a wall of polyester between us. I began singing, moving the flashlight above me, all around me. On and on I sang-hymns, show tunes, even nursery rhythms. I alternated with whistle blowing and hand clapping-- anything to keep the powerful, black animal confused and off-center. I both heard and felt him as he brushed the tent walls with his strong body but I never stopped entertaining.
At some point during the endless night, the sounds stopped--the tent ceased to move, like the animal had left but…. had he? Thinking he might be trying to “outfox” me, I continued to perform until the rain ended, the winds died, and the rising sun topped the mountain.
Stepping outside my shelter into the daylight, I saw evidence--everywhere-- of the Leopard. The ground was covered with overlapping paw prints and the tent’s sides were smeared in a muddy design – like a kindergarten finger-paint display. What a night!
After that incident, I never took my safety for granted-- ever again. I adopted the motto: Expect the unexpected...in China.
PS. After my journey of The Great Wall ended, I lectured at Beijing University, sharing many of my experiences on China’s beloved Great Wall. The highlight of my lecture was my night with the Black Leopard.
Soon after my talk, a professor mailed me a Beijing newspaper clipping that had appeared while I was journeying the Great Wall. The front page article stated: “Black Leopards, once believed extinct, have been sighted in the mountains of North China. Rare sightings of Black Leopards have also been reported by villagers living near The Great Wall.”
In 2006 I was professionally diagnosed with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I valued the time I spent with a Therapist in Alexandria, Virginia. I trusted her. When she suggested that, for our next meeting, I write a letter to the little girl in me, I lost no time complying with her wishes.
Here is a portion of that letter:
Dear Little Girl,
Thank you for never leaving me. Thank you for comforting me through all the hurts while encouraging me to dream. You are my best friend and I love you.
Make-believe and Pretend continue to shield you from a hurt-filled life. As a child, living on Pine Bluff’s East 6th street, you didn’t have friends. Alone, at the age of three, you walked four blocks to study piano lessons with Miss Hilda. When you were only four years old, you rode across town by yourself with strange taxi cab drivers to take tap dancing lessons. Every Saturday morning, all by yourself, you rode the city bus to your favorite place---the Public Library. Books were everywhere, rows and rows of multi-colored, multi-sized books, each beckoning you to step inside their pages. Once inside, the pages took you to other worlds, to adventures far from your hometown.
On Saturdays, after leaving the library, you walked west-one block to stand in front of the town’s finest home, the Simmons Mansion. Beautifully manicured evergreens edged the wide brick walkway leading to a carved-walnut door highlighted with leaded glass. Four white, fluted columns, more than three-stories tall, framed the doorway.
After years of looking, you decided to activate the adventure. Marching up the long brick walkway, you stood on tiptoes to grasp the ornate brass knocker. “Boom, boom, boom”, the knocker sounded surprisingly loud as you waited for the door to open. Standing there, anticipating the adventure, not once did you consider the possibility of being turned away.
The mansion’s matriarch, Ms. Simmons, opened the door, welcoming you inside as though she had been expecting you. I remember every detail---how beautiful Ms. Simmons looked in a navy velvet dress with a strand of white pearls at her neck. Except for a few wisps of curious curls peeking around her pearl-studded ears, Ms. Simmons’ cotton-white hair stayed securely tucked in a classic bun. I remember the sound her sensible shoes made as they clicked rhythmically on the polished hardwood floor.
Straight out of a fairy tale, the elegant structure was more opulent than you imagined... with uniformed servants, seven bedrooms with seven private baths, crystal chandeliers, even an elevator. But, the hand-carved staircase was the most awesome sight. The majestic staircase flowed upward to a landing with a massive stained glass window then split---one side going left, the other going right until the staircases merged at the third floor. The entire top floor featured a ballroom with balconies, a full stage, even an orchestra pit.
After touring the Mansion you glided to the bus stop like a queen. It didn’t matter you had missed four buses. Minutes before, you’d experienced a beautiful world with elegant people; a world far beyond the wood-frame rental house at 1707 East 6th Street.
Follow-Up: After Mrs. Simmons died, her beautiful home stayed vacant for years. Her heirs-- all wealthy—didn’t care about the house, only about the pricey items inside. They left the stately Simmons Mansion to lick its wounds; mourn its losses. Since discovering the beautiful treasure as a child, the house never failed to captivate me with its elegance. Newly married, I never missed one day driving past the Simmons Mansion.
The day I saw the FOR SALE sign, I called the number listed to learn the house was on the market for 90,000 dollars. Trying to convince my husband to purchase the house was a waste of time. To him, old houses were like old people….they needed to be shut-down and removed from society. I approached the city about buying the house, suggesting it could be used for small concerts, workshops, ladies auxiliary meetings, luncheons, even a music conservatory. I had endless ideas but…. no one had vision; no one supported historic preservation. If only...
The day the wrecking crew destroyed Pine Bluff’s most beautiful history and--- my first love--- was the day I lost my childhood. Soon, a very cheap, ugly motel replaced the once-manicured property and I never drove down that street again.
It’s interesting to note: The group that bought and demolished the Mansion for 60,000 dollars, was a company composed of three men, all wealthy Pine Bluff Businessmen, who just wanted to make a fast dollar. None of the three had any loyalty to the city or to its history. One of the men happened to be--- my father-in-law.
I pride myself on being creative… but also on being a responsible individual.
Each day, as I complete my to-do list, I’m very-aware of the items in my hands and pockets while….at the same time…I’m completely focused on the clock and my surroundings. But, something happened last Monday, December 3, 2018 (My Birthday).
That day, while Grocery Shopping at Walmart, it was clear I was running late. In an effort to “catch up” I began to hurry and…before I knew it… I was facing a potential disaster.
Leaving Walmart, I raced to the car and quickly shoved my many purchases into the car’s trunk. I was parked in a spot at the end of the row so I left the shopping cart beside the iron pole marking each row. Walmart’s parking lot is always full so I knew someone would find my ideal spot in seconds and be glad for my shopping cart nearby.
About two miles down the road was my next stop, a grocery store named Food Wise. That store offered the best price on cat food and other treats for my “night visitors”. I pulled in a parking spot then reached down for my purse. Only then did it hit me: I’d left my purse in the Walmart Shopping Cart!
Like a wild woman, I drove as fast as possible-- back to Walmart. I was crazed to get back there immediately---desperate to find “my life”….all my I.D cards, my cell phone, two checks I’d yet to deposit, and….more than one hundred sixty dollars in cash! I never carry cash but today was an exception---it was my birthday.
I sped to Walmart’s entrance, slammed on my brakes, and jumped out of the car. Two Salvation Army Volunteers were ringing their bells when I interrupted to ask if anyone had told them about finding a purse in a shopping cart. They shook their heads—“no”—just as a woman with long gray hair, walked toward me and asked “why aren’t you carrying a purse?”
Instantly, I knew something good was about to happen. I grabbed the woman by the arm and said: “Please! Did you find my purse!?!?!? I left it in my shopping cart and I’m desperate to find it.”
The woman described how she and her husband discovered my purse, then.. minutes earlier.. left it inside Walmart with the store manager. I ran in the store, tears of relief running down my face, and happily claimed my lost property! The manager pointed out that the couple who’d found my purse--left a note inside with their names attached. They wanted to verify they’d removed nothing; that everything in the purse was exactly as they’d found it.
The finders of my purse were standing beside my car when I returned from my happy ending. I hugged them both before saying: “I feared someone untrustworthy would find my purse and I’d never see its contents again."
The older woman with long, gray hair, squeezed my hand and said: “Dear friend, we are Jehovah’s Witnesses and we work hard at living our faith.”
Minutes later, driving out of the Walmart parking lot, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Just Imagine--the people who found my purse were trustworthy; they were good and honorable people. I could hardly keep from crying because I'd just experienced real goodness.
There are no coincidences in my life. I easily remembered the day before…the day when my Pine Bluff friend and I were driving down highway 7 and passed a building called Kingdom Hall…the meeting place for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I remember thinking--then saying “I haven’t heard anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses since I left Pine Bluff in the early seventies. I supposed they were all gone...that everyone had died...
In my younger years, my Grandmother Heist was my Sunday School Teacher. I recall one particular lesson she taught---a lesson I’ve never forgotten:
“When there’s goodness in your heart, it doesn’t matter whether you’re labeled a Methodist, a Baptist, a Jew, or a Jehovah’s Witness. We are all equal in God’s sight.”
For years, the framed picture of a steam engine hung on a prominent wall in my parents’ house. It featured an embroidered message: “Old Engineers Never Die, They Just Lose Their Steam.”
I seldom looked at the picture; the phrase “lose their steam” was an insult to my father, R.B. (Roy) Miller. A Locomotive Engineer, my father had a perfect record with the Cotton Belt Railroad. In fact, most of my family had a personal connection with railroads. My great grandfather spent many years with the railroad as a carpenter and his daughter, my grandmother, worked as a secretary for forty years with the Cotton Belt. After leaving college, my brother proudly served as a roundhouse foreman at the Cotton Belt Shops until his death in 1994.
The railroad put food on our table for many years. Our family had great respect for the railroad and no one was more committed to the railroad than my father. I watched him begin each day with a determined “Full Steam Ahead”.
Roy Miller (R.B. to those who worked with him) followed a strict code of ethics. He refused to borrow anything, including money, vehicles, even tools. My father didn’t believe in charge accounts, credit cards, and never varied from a cash-only lifestyle. He was a handsome gentle-man who dressed well, displayed classic manners, and treated everyone with respect.
My father grew up in Missouri during the depression years. As the oldest of five siblings, he had no choice but leave high school in the ninth grade to help his father, Amon Burette Miller, support the family.
I remember the summer I was job hunting and my father mentioned a few of his more distasteful summer jobs like painting barns, shoveling excrement from out-houses, and butchering hogs (his least favorite). All involved long hours but only a few dollars.
He smiled when he talked about the day he was hired by the railroad, calling it the most memorable day in his young life. Oh, how he loved his railroad job! Years later, after more than forty-three years of railroad service, Roy B. Miller had a perfect attendance record. My father had never missed one day of work.
During my father’s time with the railroad, Cotton Belt Locomotive Engineers were officially retired on their seventy-second birthday. For most engineers, after years of climbing off and on an engine; years of taking work orders in the early morning hours; years of spending nights away from home…. mandatory retirement was a time of celebration.
But, my father had a different reaction. The idea of ending his love affair with the railroad-- made him sad. If given a choice, my father would have remained an active, Cotton Belt Engineer until the day he died. In 1982, with his seventy-second birthday a few weeks away, Daddy spent most of his time outside, aimlessly walking around the yard he loved, looking at everything but---focusing on nothing.
A few weeks after daddy’s birthday, after his railroad retirement was officially documented, I invited him to join me for a car ride. Several blocks from home, approaching the railroad tracks, we heard the familiar bells clanging as lights began flashing, and the automatic safety barriers dropped, blocking the roadway. Within seconds, a long freight train roared by. I was talking, chatting about something, when I sensed my father’s silence. Turning to look at him, I felt overwhelmingly sad. My father’s head had dropped forward as tears dripped from his chin, designing wet circles on his favorite brown gabardine slacks. I leaned over, put my head on his shoulder, while my hand tried to catch the tears. Desperate to stop his hurt, I whispered, “Daddy, I promise, everything will get better soon.”
But, nothing got better. In a few quick years Dementia, the uninvited houseguest, became my daddy’s permanent companion. For me, the ultimate heartbreak came one night when the telephone rang. As if nudged by an electric prodder, Daddy struggled out of his chair, fighting to catch his balance while stumbling toward the ringing phone. I watched in silence as my wonderful father reached for the telephone, then announced to no one in particular: “Excuse me, please. I have to answer this phone. It’s the call boy with my train orders.”
The last time we were together was Christmas, 1987. I couldn't move beyond a nagging premonition. When it was time to leave, I gave Daddy one last hug. Holding him close, I told him over and over how much I loved him and I promised to call as soon as my plane landed. He cried, quietly, as he held on to me like a lifeline, his tears marking my coat collar.
Whispering softly, afraid my mother might hear, Daddy begged me not to leave him. It was as if he, too, sensed this would be our last time together. As my car backed out of the family driveway… I lowered the window to say “I love you, Daddy”. Watching his unsteadiness as he struggled to return my wave, I knew for certain---this would be our last shared moment.
Today, approaching a railroad crossing, bells began clacking….red lights started flashing…. and safety barriers dropped. Sitting in my car, I stared down the track at the approaching train. Decked out with flags, streamers, and banners, a restored locomotive came steaming, parading down the track--clickety-clack-clickety clack--moving toward some unnamed celebration.
Out of respect for the historic engine, I opened the car door to stand at attention. The massive steam engine roared past, its train wheels clicking out its familiar sound, its steady, staccato rhythm. My heart pounded with childhood excitement as the antiquated train whistle blew a loud, continuous refrain.
All my life I’ve loved trains, but this train was no ordinary train; this train was special. Watching the steam engine, hearing the whistle, I remembered my father. For the first time since losing him, I felt a deep-down peace. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall, proud to remember my father’s life rather than his death.
Smiling, I pictured the embroidered message “old engineers lose their steam.” I realized those words were never meant for my daddy--- the world’s greatest locomotive engineer and greatest father.
Listening to the final strains of the steam engine’s whistle fade into the distance, I noted the remarkable similarities between this steam locomotive and my father, Roy (R.B.) Miller. Both were classic and... both would be forever-remembered as “powerful, on-track, and full of steam!”
Yes, Chocolate makes everything better. I merged my three favorite snacks and it resulted in this most dangerously-decadent, original treat--ever:
SALLY'S Choco-Pop-Pecan Decadence.
12 cups popped corn. (I only use white popcorn and always pop it in real butter.) Yellow Popcorn is coarse and has too many husks, hulls, and “hard tacks.” After popping, put the popped corn in a large, open roasting pan and set aside.
Mix the following ingredients for Chocolate Sauce:
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup, white Karo syrup
1 six ounce package of semisweet chocolate pieces (1 cup)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Directions: In a 2-quart saucepan, over medium heat, mix together-- Karo syrup, butter, and sugar to boiling, constantly stirring. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in chocolate pieces and vanilla extract until chocolate melts completely. Now add 1 cup raw pecan halves.
Directions: Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Pour hot chocolate mixture over popped corn, stirring to coat well. Bake popped corn mixture for approximately 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove mixture from roasting pan onto waxed paper to cool. Then…it’s ready to eat!________________________________________________________
Sure it can be stored in tightly sealed containers but…it’s been my experience that the First Batch never last that long!
Yum! Yum! Just thinking about it and...I’m ready to cook some choco-pop-pecan-decadence!
PS-- My students loved to sing THE CHOCOLATE SONG. They were always so proud of themselves for being able to spell the word Chocolate!
C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E…CHOCOLATE, THAT SPELLS CHOCOLATE.
C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E…CHOCOLATE, PLEASE, FOR ME.
OH, I LOVE IT IN THE MORNING AND I LOVE IT AT NIGHT.
I LOVE IT WHEN IT’S BLACK…OR BROWN…OR EVEN WHITE.
I LOVE IT IN A SQUARE… OR SHAPED LIKE A BUNNY… BUT,
MOST OF ALL I LOVE IT WHEN IT’S SITTIN IN MY TUMMY….YUMMY-- YUMMY!
C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E…CHOCOLATE, THAT SPELLS CHOCOLATE.
C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E…CHOCOLATE, PLEASE, FOR ME!