James Nelton Maples, 87, passed away on Tuesday, September 11, 2018 at Huntsville Hospital, here in Alabama, after a battle with pneumonia and intestinal cancer. He was a husband, father, veteran, and friend. This is the second really good friend I’ve lost to cancer. It is a devastating blow.
I met Nelton after my tractor had a slow leak in a tire back in April, 2016. I was still dragging logs out of the woods – hadn’t even started my foundation. I had met his children, and they kept saying, “you ought to talk to Dad- he’d love what you are doing.”
I found out why after I met him. It’s rare to find a friend who is into “doing” as much as I am. Nelton’s nephew commented to me the other day, “boy, if you’d have met him about 10 years ago, you’d have trouble keeping up.” It’s too bad, but I’ll take the two years I was given with him.
The man knew a lot about everything, unlike me- I know a little about everything. Let’s see if I can list the things and occupations he was involved in:
- Phone company lineman
- city surveyor
- Police chief
- engine mechanic (diesel and gas)
- built a road grader from an old grain harvester by turning it backwards and putting a plow on it
- built a sawmill for sawing logs for his son’s cabin
- certified welding instructor
- concrete expert
- horse trainer
- pig & chicken farmer
- Truck driver
- guitar player
- Sunday school teacher
I was always impressed with his knowledge. He mostly blew it off and said, “You do what you have to do to survive.” He built his own house back in the 1950’s, when you hand-mixed the cement- they didn’t have cement trucks back then. His father used to own almost all the land on Maple road- over 100 acres. And his Grandfather owned even more before that. They are founding members of the city. They built a cabin up on the mountain (near Paint Rock) as a vacation home. He has tools galore- mostly old fashioned, many he made himself (log tongs, forks for his tractor, a plow, a grader, etc.). The garage is always in a state of 12 projects going at the same time.
He gave each of his kids 5 acre plots- all together on the same block. It is quite a legacy.
His son Danny built a cabin back in the 1980’s. They hauled the trees for it from down on Hobbs Island Road. He built a sawmill to process the trees- they milled two sides flat, and spiked them together. It has a gable roof, and was the talk of the town back then- there were articles written and a news crew came out to ask them about building your own home. Nelton can now chalk up another cabin that is the talk of the town, 30 years later.
He started by offering to let me park my tractor at his place at night after my critter cam was stolen, and the friendship and my admiration for him and his wife grew. They are old-fashioned, tough, gritty, and funny, with hearts of gold. Surely God created people like the Maples to watch over foolish headstrong people like me. After watching me from across the road tip the tractor up in the air while skidding logs one day, he said, “you might want to chain that log lower on the bar- if you chain it higher than the axle, you’ll tip up.”
He had a pacemaker, so he taught me to weld from his porch- away from the EMF that could disrupt the pacemaker. He would listen to the torch and tell me, “too hot” or “too cold”, or even “are you hungry? you ain’t welding right today – sounds a little shakey.”
I’ll never forget the 5 mph golf cart pulling onto my property, with him and bunch of tools to give me some advice on surveying, or just to say hi, and offer us something from his garden.
He mowed his yard every week- right up until about 2 weeks ago. I saw him on his little John Deer riding mower, his straw hat, and boots, tooling around. He also has a 1950’s John Deer 3-wheel tractor in his barn that he keeps up. He had me weld a step on it so he could get up in the seat. I also put a new hitch mount on his firewood splitter.
I picked his brain on everything. He had had a stroke, so he couldn’t talk that well. But he was a master teacher. From my blog post “stuff breaks”, while working on my tractor lift arms:
I welded the right side with the neighbor’s supervision- well, he has a pacemaker and can’t get near high voltage devices, so he sat on his porch and listened to the welder. When I was done welding the first time, I drove by on the tractor and gave him the thumbs up. I got across the street, backed up to the log that broke it in the first place, and immediately broke the weld. Limping the tractor back across the street, and I see the neighbor in the chair grinning at me.
“What?” I said.
“I knew that was gonna happen- you were welding it too hot.”
“Too hot?” (I don’t know anything about welding….I guess you can ‘hear’ when someone is welding too hot?)
“Yeah- when you’re welding hardened steel to cast iron, you gotta turn the heat down on that thing – otherwise, you’re not really welding it,” says the former certified welding instructor.
Turn down the heat. Weld it cooler very carefully. Grind off the slag. Weld again. Grind off some more slag, adjust the heat. Weld again. The neighbor comes over to eyeball it. Gives me a nod. Off I go.
Back at the log in question. Start to lift it- “clunk!” <a few choice curse words>. Turn around and look- my weld is holding ok. Look at other lift arm: now it’s broke. <smile>. Drive back across the street. Neighbor is a little concerned as he sees me coming up the driveway. Then I show him what happened. Now he’s grinning, too.
“I’ve done that same thing before, believe it or not,” he says, laughing. Luckily, I bought a universal screw pin from Tractor Supply, and what do you know? It fits. And the weld has held up since then, too. Third time’s a charm?
When we excavated, we also had the guy move the culvert for our driveway. Nelton watched from his driveway. He said, “you see that little built up area in your driveway? Many years ago, my uncle was riding through that field, and his horse had a heart attack and died right there. They couldn’t move it, so they dug a hole and buried it right there somewhere on your property. I was just wondering if you noticed anything while you were digging.” I guess we didn’t get down that far.
They asked me to go to church with them on New Years, but my daughter was sick, so we couldn’t go. They were Baptists, while I’m Mormon. With the historical animosity between our two religions, I was afraid to upset the apple cart. “I go to a church in Huntsvill,” I kept telling them. But Joyce kept asking, so I finally told them I was Mormon.
“And what do Mormons believe?” Joyce asked.
“We believe in God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”
“Do you believe Christ died for your sins?”
“Well, then, you’re alright by me.”
He knew everybody – “I know his daddy- do you want me to talk to him?” when I was having problems with the permit people.
He wasn’t well- heat, cold- all of it affected him. “But don’t worry about me- I’ll lay down for a while, but then I’ll crank up again.” The last time I talked to him, was out on his patio. We talked about the rafters I was making. I was getting close to having all 28 of them made. He nodded his approval. I always look to see if him and Joyce are sitting out there in the shade, enjoying the breeze when I pull up to my property. Two beeps from my horn, and I always get a friendly wave. Joyce told me a few weeks ago, “We’ve sure enjoyed watching your sunflowers grow.” I said, “oh, you should take some tomatoes while you’re there.” “no- we’ve just been watching them from here- we can see your garden from this little corner in our yard. We can’t wait to see you get the roof on your cabin.”
That chair is empty now. But I think there’s one in Heaven that has now been claimed…. probably won’t get much use, though- I’m sure he has 12 projects going at the same time up there. A mighty tree has fallen in the forest. I’ll miss you, Nelton. We only got this far with you and Joyce’s support.