Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Herbert's Habits

Every afternoon at precisely 6:00 PM, regardless of the weather or planetary alignment, Herbert Evans would stop whatever he was doing and observe Happy Hour on the front porch of his home high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Herbert lived at the highest point on Big Ridge Road, and from his front porch, you could gaze out over the crest of the mountains. The view was beyond gorgeous.
When we first traveled to Herbert's mountain home in 1988 with his niece, our friend Ginna, she warned us that Uncle Herbert had some strict habits, so I was immediately fascinated, being a strong creature of habit myself. I knew that he would be a kindred spirit, and indeed, he was. On that very first visit, Herbert came out to meet us and welcomed us graciously, as if we were family, as if he'd known us for years. All of us, including our daughter Sarah, who was only three at the time, immediately settled into his home and became a part of the family fabric.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Herbert had spent his childhood in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Townshend, Vermont, and throughout his life, he maintained an identity with each of the places he had lived. He would tell stories of riding his bike in Beaufort and then, in the next breath, recall the magnificent fall foliage of Vermont. You could tell that these two places had real significance to him and had helped to shape his early years. After living in New York City, and then serving in World War II, he and his brothers John and Tom decided to open a family restaurant. After considering several cities in the Southeast, they finally opened the first Evans Fine Foods in Atlanta in 1946. Herbert served as bookkeeper while his two brothers ran the day-to-day restaurant operations. Herbert and his brothers made a good living for themselves and their families, and in the 1960's, they purchased a piece of land atop a mountain on Big Ridge Road, close to Glenville, North Carolina, where they built a home in the 1970's. It was to this home that Herbert retired in the early 1980's.

By the time our family made its first trip to Big Ridge, Herbert had it down to a science, and the kitchen especially was a strictly defined workspace. Herbert owned a vintage Philco refrigerator that had a unique door which would open in either direction. For some reason, he preferred that it be opened on one side. He wouldn't say anything if you opened it on the other side, but somehow, if you did that, you just knew that you were going against the grain. Ice cubes had to be manually evacuated from their trays in the Philco and kept in individual resealable sandwich bags. The dishwasher door, even when the dishwasher was not running, had to be closed and locked. It was not enough for it simply to be closed. I didn't know the reason for this, other than that insects might enter the machine if the door was not tightly latched. (Not that such a thing ever happens here in the Southern United States.)

Every evening, at precisely 6:00, Herbert would announce that it was time for Happy Hour. He would poll the crowd for preferred libations, then pour out a little bowl of nuts and Chex Mix. He mixed good drinks, and sometimes, we had seconds, but always only the one bowl of snacks; otherwise, we might spoil our dinner.

Dinner at Herbert's, more specifically grilling out, was a unique experience that I enjoyed immensely. Charcoal on the little portable green grill had to be drenched with charcoal lighter fluid (ah, that smell) and an electric lighter had to be placed in a certain position within the briquettes so as to provide optimal lighting efficiency. The grill had to be placed a few feet from the back porch, where there was an outlet into which the lighter could be plugged. One evening, while we were grilling after Happy Hour, we got a little too close to the house, but the important thing was that nothing was permanently damaged.

Herbert was a wonderful host, and he delighted in taking us to visit at friends' houses in the area, some of which were quite interesting. One friend had an immense wood shop in his basement, and others maintained a sizable Christmas tree farm. An Atlanta attorney and his family recently had built a spacious mountain retreat filled with modern Mexican art, and every Labor Day, we would visit their home for a huge shish-kebab festival. We generally did the driving to the friends' houses, because Herbert had a heavy foot and was not afraid to use it on the winding mountain roads. Every time he fired up his vintage International Harvester Scout with no seat belts, we felt our hearts skip a beat. Once, while Herbert and I were out for a drive in my wife Karen's new Isuzu Trooper, he led me up a mountain road which terminated on a steep ledge. We got stuck, so Herbert got out and helped me maneuver in the opposite direction, until we finally arrived back at the house, where everything was going well until Karen noticed a faint smell of burning clutch. 

In his later years, Herbert had to move to assisted living in Atlanta, because the house and its huge yard were simply too much to maintain, but he continued to be actively engaged in family activities for his remaining years, and when he passed away in December, 2011, at the age of 93, he had lived a very full life indeed.

I think there's a reason we have habits. I think they help define who we are and how we relate to the world at large. They give us a sense of predictability, which often can be quite comforting. In Herbert's case, they made him a unique gentleman who gladly shared his home with others. I treasure those days and those memories. We miss you, Uncle Herbert, every day.