One recent morning I awakened inside a camper outside Whitehorse, Alaska, where the temperature was a brisk MINUS 20 degrees! The water jugs and the coffee pot were frozen; so the propane line had to be warmed to get the tiny trailer’s furnace blasting warm air again.
It wasn’t long before my friends and I were taking a swim in the naturally heated waters of the Takhini Hot Springs. Throwing snowballs around the pool was fun, but my hair froze every time my head popped out of the water!
Just a few days later, I celebrated Easter just after midnight with the aging congregation of the Rogozhkiy Church of Old Believers in Moscow. There were no seats in the church, and worshipers stood for the entire service, squeezed tightly together, the four of us among them.
Then the patriarch went outside and led a small procession of servers around the church. After they had made one trip, the worshipers joined them, symbolizing the search for Christ’s body at the tomb. At one point, the main minister announced "Khristos Voskres," meaning "Christ is Risen," one of the few things we understood clearly.
Although a couple of us spoke Russian, we understood little of what was said because the calls and responses were in Church Slavonic, not modern Russian.
But then we traveled thousands of miles back to north Alabama and celebrated Easter in an entirely different way ... sleeping in sleeping bags in the floor of Valentina, my old VW bus. Rising on Easter morning (dressed in our overalls) to shovel nearly 1,000 pounds of black dirt into a trailer and digging up four small dogwoods to make an elderly relative’s day complete.
Those of you who know me personally may be quite baffled because you know I no longer travel, can’t swim, don’t drink coffee and certainly can’t speak Russian.
But I have been able to do all those things through a wonderful book, "Have Another Cup – Morning Essays," by my longtime friend and fellow retired newspaper reporter Darrell R. Norman.
The book is a collection of the weekly Sunday columns Norman wrote for the Gadsden Times, continuing those musings even after he retired from over 20 years of covering court, disasters, law enforcement, commission meetings and so much more.
But his retirement from the Times was actually his second retirement. He’d already retired as a Russian linguist with over 20 years in the Air Force. And spaced in between those two careers was a time of reflection when he, his wife and child went back to the earth trying to make a living with ideals in their hearts and the old Mother Earth News magazines as their guidebooks.
Norman explained that he never really knew what he intended to write for his Sunday column until he sat down at his computer or word processor Thursday morning.
Something might happen such as his younger brother gifting him with a Red Ryder BB gun that immediately took him back to their growing-up years in the coal-mining camps near Jefferson and Blount counties.
Or a reunion with some of his Air Force mates might bring back the tears and memories of losing a planeload of those souls in the Bering Sea. He logged just over 2,000 hours in C-130s and 4,000 hours in KC-135s.
The back blurb on his book notes: "We row with him across a lake in Finland on the day Elvis died. We sing with him as he celebrates the natural world parading outside his window. We dig with him through the remains of homes and lives left by deadly tornadoes and rejoice with him in his unabashed love affair with his vintage VW bus, Valentina.
"We share with his reverence for the written word and his literary heroes, including E.B. White, Ernie Pyle, Joan Didion, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. We ramble with him among the ruins of gas stations and tourist courts along U.S. Highway 11, the road that once took a Southern boy north to New York. The most consistent feature of this varied collection is the author’s voice. His easy manner always conveys warmth, affection and respect for the intelligence of his readers, and we feel good in his company!"
Of all the hundreds of columns Norman wrote, the ones featuring Valentina may have been some of his most popular and most remembered.
He explained his fascination with the vehicle that claimed his heart and delighted his readers and that came into his life on a Valentine’s Day (thus her name!).
"Valentina is a red and white 1968 Volkswagen bus – a boxy, blue-eyed hippie mobile with faded paint, worn-out seats and the characteristic hum-click engine that turns heads and invites questions," he wrote.
With his longish hair and long beard flowing in the wind, folks throughout the Fort Payne area soon came to expect to see him and Valentina gliding by and they delighted in his tales of picking antiques and other goodies along the Highway 11 Yard Sale long before picking became a national pastime and password!
But after Valentina was destroyed in August 1998 when two young men in a new pickup truck on a wet road crashed into his lovely parked between two trees, it seemed the entire area mourned! (The two young men were OK.)
"People were constantly telling me when they’d see another VW bus somewhere," he said. "They kept urging me to buy a replacement."
But, like a perfect lover, Valentina was not replaced (although it wouldn’t surprise me if one day I see him chugging down the road with his now white hair and beard blowing in the wind from yet another rusty, boxy sweetie).
I loved the columns now chapters such as "Yard sale had good junk, good stories" or "Sowing spring seeds, an act of faith."
As he wrote his columns from his remote mountain cabin, there were always tidbits I could enjoy.
"We can usually count on a full six months without frost here on the mountain. When I hear the first whippoorwill calling his mate at dusk, usually about the second week of April, I log it down. I know we won’t see frost again until about the same date in October," he wrote.
While Norman holds a bachelor’s in English from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and grew proficient in Russian through intensive study at Syracuse University and a tour in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, it is his everyday-man moments that will grab your heart.
"Have Another Cup – Morning Essays" by Darrell R. Norman is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Outskirts Press, outskirtspress.com/haveanothercup.