My little place downtown

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At first glance it looks seamless.

Shiny, original hardwood floors. New appliances. Neutral color décor. Clean beige walls.

Then you start looking.

The 1940s-built place has cracks. Layers of paint are pealing – some layers that are probably made of lead paint.

You watch your step on the front porch, since each step is a different height.

Doors and drawers don’t close completely, thanks to the layers of paint.

The walls are plaster, not sheetrock – they’d survive a punch, but a fist sure wouldn’t.

It’s a home with many flaws.

But it’s home, nonetheless.

A one bedroom, cozy, I-can’t-wait-to-relax there home.

A wine-sipping call to the back porch, looking out to nature.

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It’s a safe haven from the madness surrounding it. Like the ambulances that pass by daily. Or the crazy neighbor who chases and cusses at her dog when it gets away. And I can’t forget the old man from across the street who asked me on a date to the Shrine Club.

It was a fun time – just kidding.

It’s my first place, my first home.

Sometimes I like for it to look like nobody lives there, like a magazine.

Other times I’m fine with a mess.

It’s where I planted the roots to my career.

It’s where I cook my Grandma Reba’s pound cakes.

One of the best things about it – rent is cheaper than an Apple Watch Series 2.

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A stench, a scalpel & an eyeball

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Some sort of sea animal stench smacks me in the face when I walk through the door at Buford Elementary. I know what I’m getting into when I decide to film it.

The smell gets stronger the closer I get to the classroom – the classroom with dead, two-foot-long dogfish sharks on the table.

I don’t think I can make it through the lesson these fourth graders are about to have – dissecting sharks.

Some students stand there wide-eyed. Some look like they’re about to be sick to their stomachs. Some just hold their noses.

I want to hold my nose, too.

I stand there unsure how to feel about dead sharks lying on newspapers with my byline.

The teacher explains how to use the two tools – scissors and a scalpel – sitting in aluminum pie pans on the center of each table.

That’s when the kids are ready to dig in.

And boy, some of them start hacking away as they make the I-shaped cut on the stomachs of their sharks.

Some smells go away after a few minutes of getting used to. This smell isn’t one of them. A mix of formalin and dead fish to be exact.

The teacher finally opens one of the classroom doors that leads outside. So, obviously, that’s where I duck out to fill my lungs.

I learn the liver is the largest organ in the shark, which they pull out in one piece with the gallbladder attached. I also learn what it looks like when a kid dangles shark liver in front of my camera.

Then, it’s time for “free cuts.”

If they weren’t hacking the sharks up before, they definitely are now.

The eyeballs and brains come out during free cuts.

And when one student pops a shark’s eyeball out, sending it soaring through the air and rolling between my feet, I know it’s time to go.

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

Elementary schoolers run the interview

I park in the fire lane and pull out my equipment. There’s no rush for this story, but I’m always in a rush.

I walk into an elementary school – the kind of school I frequent to film my Facebook videos.

Hauling in my posse – tripod, camera, microphone and notes – I check in at the front and get directions to the classroom.

Second grade. The grade of what-will-they-say-next.

Today’s topic is finishing well-known idioms and Shakespeare quotes.

I knock on the classroom door and am greeted by a student. The rest are doing recess inside, which is dancing to a song and someone leading the dance on the SmartBoard.

“She’s here,” one whispers.

“Are you a newspaper reporter,” one asks. “I’m Rosie, it’s very nice to meet you.”

“I want to be a newspaper reporter when I grow up,” another one says.

I take five of them in the hall. Put chairs in a circle. And place the tripod with the camera on top of it in the middle of the circle.

I begin holding the microphone to my face saying the first part of a sentence. Then pointing the microphone to get their creative endings.

“Where there’s smoke…” I said.

“…there’s ice cream,” one student said.

I went around the circle. They were calm.

But then, they took over the interview.

“Can I push the button?”

“Can I hold the mic?”

“I want to ask a question!”

Having gathered enough for my story, I let them take over.

The interviewee they chose – me.

ILE interview

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong

A bumpy ride, a shooting & 17 shell casings

 

I didn’t know what we were about to walk up to.

I knew I had my camera bag. That my adrenaline was rushing. The White Street construction made the road bumpy. Greg’s manual transmission truck was shifting us back and forth as we sped down the road.

We knew we were headed toward a shooting – thanks to the newsroom police scanner for the tip.

We saw the blue lights before anything else when we got to the end of East Meeting Street. An ambulance and a ton of city police and sheriff’s cars. And a ton of bystanders in the gas station parking lot.

“Start snapping,” Greg said before the car came to a complete stop.

I had already started frantically turning the window knob on the door counterclockwise before we reached the parking lot.

The ambulance doors were still open. Someone was in there. But they closed the doors when they saw me taking pictures of the scene.

We stood back like we always do, and respected their area.

Of course after the ambulance left, all the officials came over to talk to Greg.

Everybody loves and knows Greg.

We left. Looped around the side street where the shooting happened. And I saw a few handfuls of people on the side road where the crime first started.

One girl was standing on the side of the road in her pajamas crying. Cars were pulling up quickly. And there were more blue lights at the end of the road.

There was more.

We pulled back onto the main road and the police had already marked off 17 shell cases they had found.

Seventeen. And the victim had only been shot once, and ran to the gas station for help.

Greg made a comment that the shooter wasn’t very good if it took that many rounds and he only shot the guy once.

We found out police are now looking for three males in a gray sedan with the back window busted out.

That was my Monday afternoon.

 

Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter and Instagram @HannahLStrong

It’s no secret

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A Sunday was the perfect day to make one – my first pound cake.

Sugar. Butter. Self rising flour. All purpose flour. Milk. Eggs. Vanilla, lemon, almond extracts. And Crisco. You can’t forget the Crisco. Or the fact that unsealing a new can of it is enough to give you a heart attack.

It’s no secret recipe. She would share it with whoever wanted it.

She could have given it out to every single person in the world to make, but nobody could top the way hers turned out.

If you knew Reba Bruton, you knew she loved to cook. And that she was beyond good at it.

She was especially known for her pound cakes. And she was always baking cakes for Cedar Grove Baptist Church’s youth fundraisers.

She passed on Jan. 31, 2017 – two weeks before Valentine’s Day.

My mother found her handwritten recipe lying on the dining room counter a week later.

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Grandma had promised to make a pound cake for the Valentine’s dinner at church – a quaint, southern church outside of Conway, SC.

So, my mother baked the cake.

Her, my father and Papa watched it auction off for $280, the highest price of the evening.

My mother sent me a picture of the recipe the Sunday before Valentine’s Day.

I read my grandma’s handwritten recipe. And remembered her homemade grape jelly I still had. I remembered pouring hot water over tomatoes before canning them with her one summer.

I pulled out her old mixer – one she gave me when I moved into my own house. A tan Oster mixer that also turns into a blender. I’m sure it’s from the late 1970s. It’s mixed hundreds of pound cakes.

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I know my grandma had a good laugh up in heaven watching me fight her old mixer, trying to get the top part to lift up. Nobody told me there was a secret button underneath.

I could hear her saying, “Don’t tear it up!”

As the ingredients mixed together, I gave the bowl a few extra pushes to keep it turning. And looked at how pretty the batter was – just like hers.

I greased up one of her old pound cake pans, the kind with the hole in the middle. And poured the mixture in.

Nearly an hour and a half later, I pulled out a nice, golden pound cake.

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With batter still on my arms, I waited for it to cool. Put a plate on top. Flipped it. Cut it.

Fluffy on the inside and a brown crust on the outside.

Just like hers, but not quite as good.

Follow reporter Hannah Strong on Twitter and Instagram @HannahLStrong

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Two hugs for grandma

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When my grandmother passed away last week, I was writing in my head over the exhaustingly long days. Unable to fully get it all on paper, I wrote small notes on a page full of Hardee’s coupons. Little notes to remember the memories…

…like when she told us not to tell Papa a man “held her hands” when she got a manicure.

…or the time she taught me how to shoot the bird.

…or how a girl goes tinkle outside.

…or that I’d always give her two hugs before I left.

…and the time she cussed when we saw a snake in the river.

She hated snakes. And she was classy but rough around the edges.

As a full-time writer I’m constantly thinking about my life on paper. What I can write to save for later. What I can write to cherish moments forever.

I’m finally decompressing by writing. Surprise, surprise.

Life goes on – which is the hardest part after a death. Or is it your ex calling you sadistic after you get upset he didn’t reach out after the loss? I don’t know. But I do know what a death teaches you – who your real friends are and their true colors.

It’s who sends the long texts. Who follows up to make sure you’re okay. Who brings you chicken pot pie. Who says they are thinking about you. Who drives the distance to give you a hug and share tears. Who sends the flowers, cards, Shari’s Berries.

What’s also therapeutic during the grieving process is comic relief. A cousin getting left at the church after the funeral because our family is so big we can barely keep up with everyone. Or when your uncle’s and cousin’s suits accidentally get swapped – one coming out in a huge suit with a coat to his knees and the other in the back bedroom trying with everything he has to get the pants buttoned.

I also learned what funeral food is in the south. It’s boat loads of macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and about 10 different cakes.

But the best lesson I learned from the week was from my Papa.

“To have good friends you have to be a good friend,” he said.