bulldozers-deforestation-pictureThe three kids, George, Flora and Al, had never been all that close growing up, but neither were they the kind who fought all the time. Their Daddy was a hell-raiser when young, and bad to go to law when grown, but they never paid him much mind, and always smiled and acted polite at supper when he introduced another “great Constitutional lawyer,” or “brilliant attorney,” he had brought home.

None of their Daddy’s lawsuits ever came to much, beyond keeping him and the other men entertained. He never prevailed, and finally passed away. Their mama was mostly interested in her garden and household management; she seemed to find dealing with the help and trades people of much more interest than any of the family.

The kids were adaptable, like the children of other wealthy and distracted parents, exactly attentive enough to stay the hell out of the way. As soon as they could they embarked on their own separate lives, returning home only for brief holiday and anniversary visits. They didn’t much miss the visits when they stopped.

Flora made such a success of her first marriage, to a Yankee, that she embarked on a string of them. George, after marrying a local girl with whom he was “in love,” saw what a success his sister was making of her serial marriages, and after a divorce got him a Yankee too, but not before his daughter Lanna was born, and on whom he would forever see the sun rise and set.

Al was like a lot of second sons who weren’t “planned.” The umbra cast by the more favored older children created a penchant for secrecy. His seething resentments were not much noticed by the rest, but his temper was. The boys he ran with used to say, in a mixture of admiration and fear, that Al was “rough.” So he had to marry a preacher’s pretty daughter, and of course it was not long before he realized the error of that choice, but he pretended to a fatalist’s contentment and found other outlets for the anger that never would leave him alone.

After the preacher’s daughter died, from cancer, and years of mostly silent abuse, Al remarried right away. He saw what his siblings had done, and went halfway, marrying the widow of a Yankee who had moved south to run a business. That fellow went native at too many lunch counters; ate too much, too fast, in the heat.

Their Mama inherited Daddy’s estate, close by where George finally settled, but nobody thought there was much there, worn-out land, some springs and creeks, a shallow river, mostly second growth woods, and she lived on the place, simply; she never seemed to need much anyway. Mama was always happy with her garden, kitchen help and yard full of chickens. She was always glad to see her children when they showed up, and about as glad to see them gone when they left again.

George sort of looked after the place after Mama died. Since she had never been charmed by any of Daddy’s lawyer friends, or any other lawyers, she had deliberately never made a will, so the estate went to probate. The kids all got around to hiring lawyers, mainly because they each knew at least one who insisted that he should represent their interest. After they got their retainers, the lawyers all pretty much agreed the place wasn’t worth fighting over, and nobody did much of anything about it for a long time.

Lanna saw, and much admired what her Aunt Flora had done with Yankees, and set about cultivating her own crop of them. The southern people are so taken with their own Snopes tales that the carpet-bagger is generally given less than his due in regional literature. Of course, that fellow is much more interested in the money than the yarning anyway.

If Lanna had been born in her grandparents’ generation she would have been highly complimented with remarks like, “Don’t she look so nice and fat?  She sure does wear that money well, don’t she?” Her own generation disdained sleek for svelte, also the time wasted in lying compliments, in favor of more perfected envy.

The first of her Yankees was a banker, who plunged into real estate development, lending money to cronies, then buying into their developments he financed, effectively lending the bank’s money to himself. He avoided getting wiped out more than once by the fact his poor decisions could be papered over with more loans. Lanna was all set to divorce him when he got killed in a car wreck. She got another one just like him; after looking at the lawyers and surgeons some of her friends snared, she could do a lot worse.

IMG_3707.JPGThe fast money was appealing to Lanna, and the fact that it came from developing some of the property on her grandmama’s place meant her interest was largely secure from her partner’s cheating. Lanna’s interest was shared, with her daddy, of course, but he would never know her to do wrong. It was the undivided interest with her Aunt Flora and Uncle Al that presented problems. The more Yankees she did business with, and the more stuff that got built on the place, the bigger that problem got.

The biggest problem of all with the inheritance was one that nobody had foreseen as presenting any difficulty when it was first built. It was a lake on the shoal-filled river that ran through the place. That same stream eventually ran by Al’s and Flora’s places, but they never did much more than let kids, and giant corporations, fish in it and stuff.

Unimproved, the stream could supply some needs, and support a middling fishery, but as a large lake, built with federal tax dollars, other people’s money, the economics of the little river jumped way beyond the niggling profits of a few grist mills and the costs of building bridges over it.

As a big, fine “impoundment,” run by the Army Corps at no noticeable cost to Lanna and her crowd, it was the very definition of a “boon.” It came to define “boom” as well. And that boom proved thirsty, what with golf courses all over the pastures and woods, and front yards and back yards and side yards and median strips and pocket parks and culs-de-sac all carpeted with the finest hybrid turf grasses; saying nothing of the roaring squadrons of air-conditioning equipment, and the fleet of thirsty and evaporative power plants backing them up.

That little river full of rocks and shoals was running close to the limit of how much water it had to give up during the occasional dry spells. Just like those in Lanna’s developments, Al and Flora had a lot of golf courses and “beautifully landscaped ranch-style brick homes.” Then all of the rest of the farm and forestland began to vanish behind foam board and stucco “mansions,” and “estate homes,” edifices far more demonstrative of skill in financing than in the craft of their construction.

Despite an apparent lack of focus on the self-absorbed lives of their sibling and his offspring, Al and Flora noticed when their real estate developer friends complained. After some droughts, the siblings’ lawyers talked them into suing. Not much persuasion was needed. Even the fact that their lawyers were more notable for their zeal and acquisitiveness than any particular legal insights would prove to be but a small problem.

George and Lanna’s lawyers were even worse, laboring as they did, under the burden of having no real case. Not that they regretted those facts. Beside the time used in arguing on behalf of facts, the hours for which an advocate can bill in a losing cause are effectively limitless. This was much of the motivation and father to all the “brilliance” and “greatness” of the bloviating lawyers their daddy used to bring home.

George’s lawyer, and his other henchmen, the “consultants,” since they work for anyone with money, may not have enjoyed the strongest legal position, but they never intended to win in court anyway. They much preferred to just win the biggest pot of money. “Winning” was getting whatever George and Lanna wanted for as long as they could get it.

If “cunning is the intelligence of the stupid,” George and Lanna’s strategy to extract a maximum of value from the legacy illustrates that aphorism. They could not do much with Flora and her folks.  (Isn’t the very phrase, “outslick a Yankee,” but a fantasy; wasn’t American folklore’s first Yankee named, “Simon Slick”? )

Al and his boys on the other hand, were country come to town.

George’s boys arranged for some of their friends to offer Al “free advice,” and it took Al a while to figure out that his own negotiators were actually working for George, before he got rid of them.

The strategy George’s advisors had called “live and let live,” and which they had persuaded the others’ lawyers to go along with, finally collapsed under the weight of the  falsehood on which it was based. “Live and let life” turned out to have meant, “Let George and Lanna do whatever they like.” As that fact became unavoidable, Flora and Al’s lawyers began the filings that would finally end George’s “manipulative and ruinous execution” of their mother’s estate.

When the judgment finally came, it was unexpected by no one. The judge repudiated the claims of George, and Lanna, at such length that anyone but those two would have been embarrassed. His Honor even found the advancing of some those propositions to be a dubious legal enterprise in itself.  Of course, George and Lanna’s lawyers immediately announced that they would appeal. After all those years of appealing, they could think of nothing else.

Al was able to summarize the outcome by quoting one of his good old boy cronies, “George brung a knife to a gunfight. Took a couple of slugs from Al and Flora both, so what do you reckon he’s doin’ now? Sharpnin’ up his knife for another round.Dead and don’t know it.”

Neill Herring

Neill Herring

Neill Herring was born in Dalton, GA, in 1947. Attended public schools there, and got a BA from Georgia State in History in 1969. Failed draft physical because of poor eyesight. Worked in anti-Vietnam war movement, wrote for Great Speckled Bird, Atlanta underground weekly, worked as carpenter for many years while also working to oppose Southern Company overexpansion of electric plant investment at ratepayers' expense. Followed Southern Company to the Georgia General Assembly and became an environmental lobbyist there in 1980. Lives in Jesup, has two daughters, 24 and 19, spends the winters in Atlanta to take advantage of the cold, wet weather, and the steam heat of the State Capitol.