Posts tagged education

My Father-A Man Among Men

29720194     My Father-A Man among Men

 

I started this story many years ago, but this week, in honor of his 87th birthday and Father’s Day, I have revised it and added a little sentiment. You see, this will be my father’s last Father’s Day or birthday, if he even lives another week and a half. I found out this week that he has terminal cancer. I have spent the last month in a downhill spiral with him. I have gone from trying to keep him from driving, to trying to keep him able to walk, to admitting him to hospitals, therapy programs and now, the hospital again. Rather than change what I wrote before, I decided to leave it, and simply add the thoughts that come to an only child whose mother is dead when she is loosing her father too.

 

This is the beginning of the story I put on wordpress last year. With some additions that came to me as I wrote this year, tears running down my cheeks.

A few years ago, I wrote this story for my father on Father’s day. I had hope to put it on my blog, but it didn’t happen. I found it today after I got home from my third day accompanying my father to a surgeon and decided that I wanted to honor him every day. It was time to write the blog. My father did not have cancer this time.

I had been looking for a poem that I had written my father years ago, when I felt so young and innocent. Life has never been particularly kind to me, bu the last ten years have seen so many changes in my world that it has been hard to hold onto who I am. I realized more than ever that the only way that I have made it through these time was the love and strength I had received from my father (and my mother.)

Within these past ten years, I have lost my best friend and three cousins to cancer. I saw four of my children marry in only four years and have been blessed with seven grandchildren, with number eight due next week.. Not long after my second child got married, I lost my precious 15 year old son very suddenly while he was playing baseball. I lost my health because of this loss and have come close to death myself five times. Not quite four years ago, when I was still recovering from a hip transplant, I lost my beloved mother. The grief that my father felt after 61 years of marriage took a tremendous toll on him.

This story, however, is about my father, one of the most amazing men I have ever known. My father never had an easy life. His dad was a tenant farmer in Upper South Carolina and then Western North Carolina. His family moved nearly every year when he was young. They moved six times in his first six years. He and his brother would nick-name the houses. For instance, my dad would call the house they lived in by a nick-name so that  he and his brother would remember the houses and the places they lived . One house, they called the “smoky house” because the chimney flue was faulty and the house would fill up with smoke.

He and his brother, who was three years older were out earning money doing chores when they were in grade school. They were raised by their dad, with some help from a maiden aunt. She was kind, but very strict and religious. Their dad spent a good deal of time in a Veteran’s Hospital in Tennessee and they would be passed among aunts and uncles while he was ill. His mother, who had been sickly most of his life died when he was five years old. During the 1920’s, it was practically unknown for a single father to raise his children. They were fortunate that this maiden aunt agreed to come and help him raise them. She cooked them good meals and allowed for a a woman’s influence in their lives.

My father has told me stories of his life since I was a child. I would beg him to tell me a particular story. I called him, “Huckleberry Ken” because his life had been so full of both hard work and mischief. After becoming a parent myself, I suggested that he should write down his stories, so that we could pass them on to his grandchildren, along with others who had enjoyed his art of storytelling.

He took my suggestion, and with me acting as editor, he published four books about his childhood, teen years before World War Two, his time in the Navy in Guam, and his years working on both the Highway and Railway Post Office. He has another book that we never officially officially published. Today, I got a check in the mail for someone who had read about his books and ordered some of them.

Helping him with his books was both a chore and a privilege. I has to order photos from museums, obtain permission to use them, hunt down friends he had known 50 years before and record their stories, then scan and edit everything on the computer. In the early 1990’s a home computer was much more complicated than it is today. Ironically, my laptop computer seems more difficult for me to figure out than that old, but expensive computer that we used to prepare his books for publishing. I often wonder why I ever suggested the idea of publishing the books. To my father, it was the dream of a lifetime. Still, I look upon those difficult days, when I had a house full of little children to deal with as well, as some of the most hectic and yet some of the best days of my life.

My dad was the good student, the hard worker, his dad’s “favorite”. His brother had more difficulty in school and would probably be labeled “ADHD” in this day and time. When the school would send home letters about his brothers lack of progress, my father would read them and tear them up, knowing that his brother would be unjustly scolded by their father and realizing that no one at school would follow up on the letters. In the decade when he and his brother were students, kids from impoverished families were looked down on by teachers and administrators. Many of the children had parents who could not read or write and children started school with little knowledge of “reading, writing and ‘rithmatic” as it was often called. Often, in rural areas,there was a shortage of materials and children who could not pay for books, never received any. There was little chance for these children to get an education when no one could help at home and no one at school seemed to care.  Most of the children from poor families has quit school by their early teens, with boys working late shifts in factories and girls staying home to work on the farm. Many girls were married by their mid-teens. Though there were child labor laws “on the books”, it was easy to lie about your age and not be questioned.

Once, when my father was in the 5th grade, he decided to change schools. After hearing from friends that a nearby school was better than the one he was attending, he made up a simple plan. All he had to do was walk a little further and catch another bus. Without ever discussing it with his father, he simply started the new school year at his “new” school. It was nearly Thanksgiving before his father found out, and since my father was doing quite well in his “new” school, his father just let it ride.

When my father and his brother were still in grade school, they would be out looking for jobs on weekends and in the summer, in order to get enough money for “soda crackers, a can of Vienna sausages and a soft drink for lunch.” In summer, it was easy to pick berries and sell them to the wealthy families who would come south “to summer” in the low country of the Western Carolinas.

He and his brother learned to work hard for very little pay. Often, they were asked to tear down old barns and storage buildings, and do odd jobs. When a wealthy resident or better yet a local contractor would ask if they could “fix cars, lay brick or haul cement”, their answer was always, “sure”. It was in this way that country boys like my father and his brother got most of their “education”.

When World War II was on the horizon, my dad and some friends headed north seeking manufacturing jobs that they had heard were plentiful in the growing automobile industry. A few of them stayed, but my father and a friend, who owned a car, did not. They came home and found work in the construction business, taking any job they could get. They learned to drive trucks, build houses, and any other job that might lead to a “step up” on the employment ladder.

Not long after returning from their adventure “up north”, my father received his draft notice and decided to join the Navy before the decision of which branch of the service he would be drafted into wold no longer be his choice.

His brother had injured his knee when he was a child and did not pass the physical to be placed into the “service”. One of my father’s most poignant memories was hearing his dad’s last words to him as he boarded the bus for basic training.

His father had bowed his head, hiding a tear and whispered, “Son, I don’t think I will ever see you again.” He didn’t. While on Guam during the Christmas holiday of 1945, my dad was called into the chaplains office and told that his father had died of a heart attack. He still has the letter hr received four days later from his father, saying that, “everything was fine.” Communications were very slow in those days but the letter was profound, his father’s prediction had come true.

Upon landing in Guam in the fall of 1945, my father was asked by his commanders if he could drive a truck. Even though he had never held an official driver’s license, he replied confidently, “Sure.” and thus found his job with the Navy would be that of a truck driver as our military men struggled to wipe out the final skirmishes of war and rebuild the devastated countries that had been left in its rubble.

His book about this time of his life is titled, “Two Hundred Thousand Boys on a Rock Called Guam. On the cover is a photo of he and two friends sitting on the top of a captured Japanese submarine, the “rising sun” that was the Japanese flag was seen right below their young, smiling faces. To me, this book is the story of a group of boys being thrust into an unthinkable situation and showing their determination and fortitude. It is the story of “boys” becoming “men”.

My father did not come home from World War II with the ticker tape parades and tearful families rushing up to their ships as it was shown in the newspaper. He got off of a bus in Upper South Carolina and walked several miles down a dusty unpaved road to an uncles’ house where he had lived for a while when he was a child. When he got there, tired and thirsty, no one was home. After walking to a country store to get a soda, he returned to his less than excited family who had been away selling produce. He stayed at their house one night, and realizing he wasn’t wanted, he took a bus to the home of a friend in Western North Carolina, hoping only for an invitation to supper and a bed for the night.

 Surprisingly, the reception he got there was one of love and acceptance. The idea of a third son to help around the farm seemed good to the father, Mr. Jackson. A warm smile came from his wife, Mabel, who had always loved my father as if he was her own. Aunt Mabel, as I was taught to call her, had always had an affinity for this long, lean, hard working young boy. Hoping only for a good nights’ sleep, he stayed there four years, until he met and married my mother.  Mr. Jackson taught my father the skills to help him get construction and truck driving jobs, and was happy to have him “pay for his keep” by helping out around the farm. My father earned enough money to buy an old truck, which he nick-named, “Old Hully”. This allowed him to move up the ladder in the construction business to the hauling of materials, rather than carrying the heavy rocks and such to the construction site. The Jackson family called my dad, “Kenny”. And the name stayed with him in that neighborhood throughout his life.

My father had always valued an education and enrolled in a local Junior College under the G.I. Bill, which had allocated him funds for attaining an education. He took a double major in Accounting and Truck management at the Business School in the larger town nearby. It was there that he met my mother, who was also taking Accounting, riding the bus to night school while working in a bakery during the day.

When they married several years after meeting, my father was working at a Trucking Company and my mother still held her job at the bakery. They soon moved in to a small house on the street where my mother had grown up. I wasn’t born until nearly six years later. I had my father under my spell even before I was born, but when he laid eyes on a little girl with golden curls, his heart melted. After growing up with men and living in a home with only sons, having a little girl was both frightening and a blessing to him.

My father worked two jobs most of his life. He worked in the insurance industry, but decided not to move to Ohio when the company transferred there. I was nearly five years old when my dad was offered a job with The Life of Georgia Insurance Company in Atlanta. Hoping that my mother would be happy in Atlanta, where her mothers’ family lived, he took the job and rented an apartment. Most of the time, my mother and I remained in our new house that he had built in our home town, and my father came home on weekends. When he moved our family to Atlanta, my mother was miserable. It wasn’t long before dad turned in his resignation and came back to our home town hoping one of his applications would be in the mail.

Surprisingly, an application did await him. It was for a job at the Postal Service! The hours were bad, the schemes, where an employee had to put cards into the correct hole in a large stand-up desk were a nightmare, but my dad was up to the challenge and while keeping his part time job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, he passed the test and got the job! His early years at the Postal Service lead to his book about his years riding a highway mail bus that was so long that it required a bolted back section to traverse the country roads, and his years working on a railway mail car, sorting mail and throwing it out onto poles made for this purpose in rural areas. These jobs often required “lay-overs” of several hours or even a whole night and the Postal Service rented out rooms for their employees to rest in as they caught their next “run”.

My father’s job at the Tennessee Valley Authority was my favorite. He often let me help him decode the machine-made charts from places up in the mountains with lovely names like “Sunburst”, which sparked my poetic soul. There was a secret phone number with a coded message on it that told the depth of the river at different locations. Dad trusted me with the number and I would call to check the gauges which sent a piece of equipment down into the different rivers and let out a series of beeps to tell the worker the depth of the river. The office also held volumes of books filled with photographs of the famous 1916 flood which devastated our area and caused several deaths.

More importantly, the TVA office was where I saw my first computer! It was in the late 1960’s and the machine took up a whole room. Its only job was to make the charts that we read to compare the depths of the river at different locations. The most exciting part of being “daddy’s girl” on his TVA job, was that I got to ride with him to observe and record data about floods that occurred in Western North Carolina. I loved telling my friend the stories of seeing houses, flooded up to their porch rails, with a cat sitting forlornly on the roof.

Being a girl, and an only child, I had to be my father’s “son” as well as his daughter. That meant I got to learn all the “boy” jobs, unlike my friends. My father taught me about the stock market, investing and he shared his love of learning with me. We played geography games, such as “who could name the most states, state capitols, or fill in a blank map”. We read books together, he taught me the love of reading and learning. He helped me with my homework. He would stay up hours doing math with me, a man who had only a 7th grade education before he took a double major at a Junior college. He would wrap my curls around his finger and assure me that if he didn’t know how to help me with an assignment, he would learn it with me.

We worked in the garden, build sidewalks and fancy brick walls and made crafts out of wood. He taught me the names of the flowers, trees and insects where ever we went. Although I spent many hours with my mother, aunt and grandparents next door, it was my father who taught me about life beyond our valley.

I had thought about sending a copy of this story only to my father, but later decided that it would make an interesting blog. ab A little girl and her devoted father would make a heart-warming story. He always reminded me of Abraham Lincoln, which did not please him. But he was tall, with curly, dark hair and a serious face, much like our 16th President.

My hope now, years after I first wrote this letter, is that my children and grandchildren will look back on this simple tribute to my father as one of love and respect. At only a few days from 87 and in extremely poor health, he still commands our respect, still teaches us the lessons that he has learned in his life and still remembers our names. Last night, as I left the hospital, he had not spoken in hours. He turned to me and touched my hand. “We live and we die.” he said simply. I kissed his cheek, fighting tears and he said, “Goodbye, Brenda. “ I honestly didn’t know if I would ever seen him again, he was so very sick. He slept all morning but this afternoon was able to listen as his youngest grandson (my youngest son) told him that he had been awarded an internship in his school’s district office. It was an honor only two kids were chosen for . My father looked up and whispered, “I knew I didn’t save all that money for college for nothing and smiled at my 15-year-old son, nearly 6 foot three, tall and thin like my father, who lay before him, sometimes cringing in pain. My father has been generous with his help, strict with his rules and filled with an unequaled devotion to his family.

Though he has not always been agreeable with our modern ideas, he has tried to keep up with technology, taught us to invest and “save for a rainy day”. He reminded us of HIS “Golden Rule” which is “Who ever has the gold makes the rules.” and that, of course , was him.

I cannot imagine having a father who loved his errant, non-conformist, self-proclaimed “hippie” daughter with any more patience and unabashed devotion than he has had with me. It goes without saying that he has had this same love and patience with my children and grandchildren.

I can only hope that in years to come, that my children will have even half as much love and respect for me as we all have towards him. As the old saying goes, “He has learned to turn lemons into lemonade.” The gifts that my father has given have been many, but none were more important than his time. He chose being with me over friends or hobbies. When I asked him what “the most important thing that we had , as young people in this crazy world ” and he would squeeze our hands together and softly say, “Time.” You can’t buy it, or even earn it, but you sure can waste it.” I wish I had listened more closely to his simple wisdom. I feel so fortunate that I have had so much time to spend with him.

This past few weeks , doctors have told me that I was fortunate that he had lived past his very close bout with death, when I was 11 years old. Many doctors and nurses said that it was so rare to see such resilience in a man with a body that had been in pain for nearly 50 years, that they were all amazed by him, that he could smile, still hope, still say “It wasn’t easy, but the rewards were greater than the pain. Next June, I will try to honor him by remembering his determination, his talent, his stern but loving voice. I will try not to cry, but instead, to tell my children and grandchildren what hearty stock they came from and simply, to live to make him proud.

 

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The Oregon Trail and the Modern World

The Oregon Trail

History Majors are an ever-smaller group at our university it seems. If we aren’t finishing a degree in Computer science, business, accounting or the like, there is little need to get in line at the job fairs held on campus or at the mall. In my mind, that of a Public History Research major from the 1980;s, our “learning” is s far out of date we have little chance of being noticed. Yet, as I see my youngest son, obsessed with his computer and coding, never picking up a book to read, unless it is required, I see more and more need for courses to be required in subjects that teach us not only about the future, but how we got here. Who we are, where we came from and the process of learning are just as important to a Computer major as to one of us poor “do you want fries with that’ majors we used to joke about 30 years ago.

I may be wrong, but this photograph looks like one I once saw of the Oregon Trail. It was amazing to me that over a hundred years later, the ruts from the hundreds of wagon wheels traveling somewhere west of where ever the settlers had begun were still visible on the tall grass prairies which led settlers not only to Oregon, but many other places which, today, are as crowded and crime ridden as the ones these brave souls were escaping when the trails were made.

As a historian, genealogist and general lover of the studies of past places, countries and ways of life that lead us to the unbelievable places we can go today, I find learning about these cultures and how they thrived and often ultimately died of fascinating interest.

I admit, I almost agreed with some of my older children when they called the “Humanities” courses “Department Funders” In other words, they had no real use in the modern world. But as I get older, I have changed my mind. Hear the news about Vladimir Putin taking over the Crimea reminds me quickly of the horrors of Sevastopol during the wars with Great Britain in the 1850’s. It reminds me that thinking an event, or one similar to it will never happen again, is not only foolish, it is simply wrong.

I encourage all Universities, colleges and Even Technical Colleges to require students to have some knowledge of world history so that they can have a basis on which to prevent the errors of the past from repeating themselves.

And, lastly, I would like to see today’s children understand why they have the technologies they now possess and what their ancestors endured in order for them to live their lives of luxury, or at least,lives of hope.

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The First Steps in Reading

01090157I will teach you how use the most effective, fun lesson to teach a child who has a basic knowledge of letters and their sounds how to read their “first words” . After spending months teaching my two or three-year olds how to recognize the letters of the alphabet, then moving on to teaching them how the letters sounded, we worked on putting the sounds together. I started with just sounds, or maybe small words such as “to”, “go”,“I” ,“no” and such, but found they were soon bored. I came up with away to teach words that they had learned as some of their first spoken words-colors. We all teach our children colors and shapes early on in their quest to expand vocabulary, and eventually read.

I would write the basic colors, such as green, blue, black, yellow, red, orange, purple, pink and white with the color of colored pencil that the word was. Red would be written in red pencil or crayon, blue was written in blue, and so on. I immediately noticed that they paid more attention to the word. When I felt they could recognize the word, I took away the “color” cue and wrote it in plain pencil. With in a very short time, they were reading the words without the color cue.

I did the same thing with familiar object. I might draw a cat or dog and write the word below it. After several sessions, I would take away the drawing and we would work on reading the word. They read them within very little time.

Another methods I used was rhyming words. I would tell them, if you can read “fun”, then you can read words that sound like the word “fun”. I would list “run”, “sun” and ”gun” and have the read them with me. Another set might be “it”, “fit”, “sit”, hit’ and such. You get the idea. I showed them that they could read many words, if they could sound out the primary sound of one word. Again, they caught on very quickly.

As their confidence grew, it encouraged them to put together new sounds, to “guess” what word might come next and to sound out words they didn’t know. If they did not succeed, I would sound the word out with them before they got discouraged. I made each teaching time short, with breaks between reading and math. Science and geography, “maps” were more fun, so I often divided the more difficult subjects with the ones they liked. We did a lot of nature studies, whether it was in the neighborhood, or at a local estuary.

As my older kids moved on, I made sure they were studying geography or science while I worked with reading and math with the little ones. If the younger children saw that the older kids were not working, they did not want to work either. When they were in middle and high school, I would have the older ones learning world nations, their capitols and location while I taught the younger children how to point out each state in the United States and then learn its capitol.

Of course there is much more. Many times, I just did what came into my mind, or saw the children raise a question about. I feel it is very important to begin at an early age and have a consistent routine. If you do not have a consistent routine, I guarantee, you will have to fight for their attention. If it is a part of their day that they expect, they comply with very little objection. You can offer a snack when you finish, if needed.

Teach children is a fun activity for all of you. Robert Half wrote one of my favorite quotes, which says, “When one teaches, two learn.” I love that. It is so true. Try my method, incorporate it into your own and enjoy helping your child off to a great start in school!

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Meeting the President

President Barak Obama speaks about jobs and manufacturing while visiting the Linamar Corporation plant in South Asheville Wednesday afternoon. (John Fletcher 2-12-13)

We live in Western North Carolina, and it seems that President Obama has fallen in love with our beautiful area and it’s tasty Barbeque.  Last week President Obama made a visit to the new manufacturing plant where my son works.  When the Secret Service rushed the employees though a surprise question of “Do you want to bring a guest?” and my son, caught off guard said, “I don’t guess so..” and the Secret Service had moved on before he had time to think of how much it would mean to “old Mom” to meet the President. I didn’t get to go.

My son works at Linamar, a new Canadian based plant that makes engines for various companies. Last spring, he heard about a new plant moving here that was looking for machinist.  The local community college offered a course,in order to train prospective workers.  My son quickly signed u for the 3-month course,applied fro the job, and since he already had an Associates Degree, he was hired the next day!  When Obama chose Linamar as an example of new companies, even from other countries, beginning to take an interest in coming to the US where there were well trained workers looking for jobs, he chose Linamar as a great example of what determination to get a job , willingness to work and take classes to get the job and dedication to your career could do.

My son (with our family’s help in babysitting) made sure to take advantage of an opportunity to further his eduction,never missed a class, filled out an application and was hired quickly and has worked 6-7 days a week , 2nd shift to get his machinist job with good pay and benefits. There are opportunities out there for jobs that pay a living wage if you are willing to go back to school and possibly work something other than second shift, at least to start with.  My son’s experience gives us hope in knowing that showing up a at work, having a good attitude and  working hard to learn everything you can still pays off in this country.

My son appeared in the local newspaper right behind President Obama.  It wasn’t a great photo of my son, but if you know him, you could tell it was him.  His kindergarten-aged son got to show off a picture of his daddy with the president.  My son got to shake the president’s hand, and even though he isn’t “Obama fan” like I am, he was honored to meet the current President of our country.

Our newspapers website is: http://www.citizen-times.com.  His photo appeared on the front page on Thursday, February 14, 2012, if you would like to see it.

Though a politician often takes some flack for “spending tax payers money” on such trips. That has some validity. still, I think it helps to highlight the opportunity our country still has to get an education, work hard and move up in life. Most do not, have this opportunity and few ever will . I am proud of my son and thankful to have been given the good fortune of being born here and living in freedom.

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When one teaches, two lea…

When one teaches, two learn.

Robert Half

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The Lost Art of Longhand

The Lost Art of Longhand

I have always admired people who had a beautiful  and consistent longhand script. I considered the ability to have that lovely artistic flow to one’s handwriting as a talent, a peek insider one’s innermost self.  I always blamed my fourth grade teacher for robbing me of this talent. She didn’t approve of the way I held my new ink pen, complete with light blue ink cartridges that had to be changed at regular intervals.  It was such an exciting new skill for me.  I loved the way the ink flowed onto the paper, how the heaviness of my hand on the pen would change the amount of ink in my writing, and thus the depth of each letter with every stoke of the pen..  It carried such emotion, such feeling.  

Several of my cousins had developed this lovely, passionate longhand.  I admired it and found myself rather jealous of their skill, for it seemed that no matter how much I practiced, my “cursive” had a sloppy, uneven texture to it that made it seem insincere and unprofessional.

I have loved exploring  my family’s past from the time I was a teenager. Among the treasures that my grandmother kept in a quaint old wardrobe were copies of letters and photographs dating back to the Civil War. My favorite letters were those written by my great-great-grandfather when he was a prisoner in a Yankee prison camp in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. It was surprising to me that even many educated men in this era had developed a lovely script and flow to their writing.  Somehow, the beauty of the longhand, itself, seemed to fill his thoughts  with a sort of prose. There would be hopeful letters reporting that “no one else had died” in the camp, or emotional letters of how he longed to meet his son, born while he was a prisoner of war.  Later, when he worked as a surveyor and traveled, he had written this same son, now grown, a letter of advise on what to do to insure the success of his upcoming marriage. His dark, elaborate script brought his words to life.

My aunt had inherited a collection of another relative’s Victorian-era Post Cards. Many of them had photographs of loved ones on the front of the card, as was the style during that time.  Each card would draw out to the reader details surrounding current events in the life of the person or persons pictured. I remember my aunt using her finger to trace the delicately slanted script that filled the back of each card.  The beauty of the handwriting served to enhance the details of her captions.

Remembering my struggles to develop the artful script of longhand writing, I encouraged my daughters to work on the quality of their “cursive”, as it was called, when they were around nine or ten years old. This “coming of  age” event, when we were  allowed to write in cursive was a big deal when I was in school. Even fifteen years ago, when most school papers were written by hand, the art of using “cursive” instead of print was becoming less important.  Sadly, the older daughter never really learned to write in a traditional cursive script, and the younger one rarely used the nicely flowing script she developed when word processors became the way to write papers and e-mail and face book took the place of writing letters.
Perhaps, now that we have realized that using longhand to communicate is becoming a lost art, we will seek to teach its beauty and heritage much as we have begun to revere the customs and languages of our forbearers.  There is something about seeing a letter written in someone’s own hand, that makes it more personal, gives it life and personality.  Indeed, longhand is much like any craft we might learn, it serves to remind us of a more simple time, when people took pleasure in communicating their feelings and didn’t mind investing the time required to do it.

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The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

The Black and Yellow Argiope Spider

Black and Yellow Argiope
Also Known as “Garden Spider”

One day in early August several years ago, I found myself lamenting over how few praying mantises I had been able to observe that season. Then I noticed a beautiful Black and Yellow Argiope spider (Argiope Aurantia) sitting on her web, attached to a bush at the edge of my garden. I went to tell my kids and when we returned, we found another Argiope on her web nearby. Within the next few days, two more of these large colorful spiders appeared in our yard.

I am always looking for opportunities to study new creatures and these four “ladies” were just what the doctor ordered! In Western North Carolina, where I live, the Black and Yellow Argiope is a rather common sight. Since they are often found at the edge of the forest or fields, many people never see them. They are often referred to as “Garden Spiders” or “Writing Spiders”. Some years ago, when I had a larger garden, I often found one or two of these spiders residing near the edge of my garden by late summer. It was then that I started to study them. Once, I saw one that was identical to the Argiope I was familiar with, only it was solid black. I have never seen another one like it.

Many a legend has been formed in these mountains about these spiders, whose large webs contain a bright white zig-zag “writing” down the middle of the web. This, of course is how they obtained their common name of “writing spider”.

My fathers’ favorite legend about these spiders comes from the days when World War II was looming on the horizon. It was said, that at a local church, members began to speak of a “Writing Spider” who had made a web near the grave yard. Several people swore that the spider had written “WAR” in her web. My father and some of his friends went to see the web, but felt the church members were stretching the truth a bit. Still. it was an interesting story and attracted quite a bit of interest.

Scientists believe that the real reason for the “writing” in the center of the web is to warn off birds so they will not tear up the web as well as to attract insects to the dense white color of the design. The want the web to collect a meal for them before it is destroyed. The bright white zig-zag may also attract prey for the spider.

The adult female Black and White Argiope is around 3/4″ to 1″ in body length with her legs stretching out in an “x” like pattern to make her much larger. The males are seen left often and are much smaller. Their bodies are long and thin while the females are wide and heavy. At the end of summer males build small webs near a female in order to approach her and mate with her. As with all male spiders, they must be careful. Female spiders do not set out to kill and eat the male, as is often rumored, but if she is hungry and he is careless, he may end up as a meal. I have seen several anxious males with webs near a huge female.

The female Argiope sits in the middle of her web, near her “writing” as she awaits prey, often butterflies and bees. Her abdomen is marked with yellow and white designs on a black background. Her cephalothorax is light gray. The legs are brown near their connections with the cephalothorax and brown and black on the lower legs.

The spiders that I have observed have had a web that averaged 15″ to 18″ in width. They usually attach them to a strong ,tall weed, bush, or corn stalk. When an insect is caught in her web, she may wait until the prey becomes weakened from struggling before she goes in to inject venom into it and wrap it in her silky web. I have observed the spiders catching, wrapping and “eating” (actually sucking out the juices) from many different insects, among them were bees of all kinds, flies, butterflies and moths and cicadas.

For six weeks that year, my family enjoyed watching these beautiful spiders. Once, early in the season, I had seen another spider sneak up and bite a young argiope. I had heard spiders ate each other, but this episode was my first experience actually seeing it. It saddened me that I would not get to follow this spider through her life cycle.

We numbered the spiders and made a chart, keeping track of their daily activities. Spider Number 4 had her web among the irises. Spiders Number 2 and 3 were only about three or four feet apart and nearly directly behind each other. Spider Number 1 was near the mailbox and attached to a wild flower called a knapweed.

In late September, spiders 1, 2 and 3 disappeared. This is the way it goes. One day after mating, they make a large, brown tear drop-shaped egg case, attach it to the weed or bush their web is attached to, and simply wander off to die.
Often, I would noticed that this event of death and renewal had happened during a hard rain. Spider number 4 was in a more protected location and remained there several more weeks. My daughter had an Argiope remain under her houses’ eve until after the first frost one year!

One day, my father and I were walking in the garden and noticed that number 4 had a large cicada trapped in her web. She had retreated to the leaves of the plant her web was attached to, avoiding the huge insect as it struggled in her silky trap. The next morning, I saw her feeding on it. To hold this giant insect, her web must have been very strong, much like the black widow, known for the strength of her web.

As an amateur photographer, I enjoyed the chance to take many photos of these spiders during the summer and early fall. This was in the days before digital cameras were popular and I took the pictures with a complicated, yet very accurate camera that used film. I was fortunate to see Spider #4 intricately repair her beautiful orb web one sunny day. How such a “simple” creature could construct such a work of art will always amaze me.

Although I did not get to see the spiders make their egg sacks, I did find and collect two of them. I sewed them up in a safe place in a low bush, hoping to see the young spiders the next spring. Though I was not fortunate enough to see them hatch, I did observe a few Argiope spiders around the yard the next year. I have learned to look for different kinds of insects, such as preying mantises, spiders and butterflies to observe during their short lives. Each experience has taught me lessons about nature that I simply could not find in a book!

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