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.22 shorts, Indians, desperadoes & turkeys . . .

Papa John, my step-father, placed little emphasis on the yuletide season, whether regarding religion and the birth of Christ or on the spirit of giving at Christmas time. I can only remember two gifts he gave me.  I posted the story of his promise to my sister and me that he would get us a dog for Christmas, and how he kept his promise. Click here to read about that memorable Christmas. It’s a sad story, sadder even than that of Tiny Tim Cratchet in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol—well, not really that sad, but it was memorable.

We lived on a small farm in Mississippi for a year or so, just long enough to sell off the cotton and a bit of timber, enough to give our stepfather a grubstake to return to a life to which he had become accustomed before marrying into our family. With the money in his pocket, he only needed to create a situation that would infuriate him enough to rid himself of the albatross around his neck, namely my mother, my sister and me. Click here for that merry tale, a story of violence and threats, including me and my sister racing to gain a hiding place and safety in the woods.

The only other Christmas gift my stepfather gave me over the seven years I lived with him, on-and-off for varying periods of time, was a .22 caliber Remington rifle in as-new condition, having been restored by a gunsmith. The wooden stock had been refinished and the metal parts re-blued. He also handed me a box of fifty .22-short rifle bullets. If you should ever have to be shot with a .22 caliber weapon, opt for the short bullet. Its casing is shorter than 22-long bullets and thus has less powder to propel the lead or copper tip.

In my boyhood I devoured the stories told in books by Zane Grey and James Fenimore Cooper. At an age somewhere between eleven and twelve years and with that rifle in my hands I became Natty Bumppo—Hawkeye—the protagonist in The Last of the Mohicans, moving silently but swiftly through the virgin Eastern forests, unseen and unheard, avoiding every twig, bush or loose stone that might reveal my presence to the wily Hurons bent on lifting my scalp, all the while protecting the white women that the author felt that renegade Indians coveted for whatever nefarious purposes.

I was also in pursuit of desperadoes, violent and dangerous men as depicted by Zane Grey including bank robbers, cattle rustlers, horse thieves and those that at one time or another had neglected to tip their hat on meeting genteel ladies on the wooden sidewalks in western frontier towns, nor did they step aside to the muddy street to allow the long-skirted ladies safe passage—the ladies were therefore required to raise their skirts to avoid the mud, thus revealing their ankles to the salacious men by deferring to them and stepping off the boardwalk into the muddy street—bummer.

As President George Herbert Walker Bush—Bush #1—might say, shortly after receiving the rifle I was in deep you know what—I was in a lot of trouble. Unknown to me at the time, our neighbors on our right some mile or so distant raised turkeys for the market. As I prowled through the forest in that direction looking for Indians or rustlers or bank robbers, I came upon a clearing with a dead tree in its center, stripped of its leaves and its branches festooned with turkeys. Since I had found them in the forest I immediately deduced that they were wild turkeys and commenced firing with the intent of putting meat on the table for my family, starving after a meager crop, with no money and a dearth of wild animals for food.

My turkey rifle was a single shot, and my stepfather had told me to never carry a loaded rifle, to load it when I was ready to shoot at something. This involved pulling back the bolt, digging a cartridge out of my pocket, inserting the cartridge into the barrel, closing and locking the bolt, then pulling back the firing pin and locking it into position to fire. Only then should the weapon be aimed and the trigger be pulled to release the firing pin that strikes the shell and ignites the powder, providing the force to propel the missile to, or at least in the direction of the target. My rifle was definitely not a rapid-fire weapon, and that feature probably saved me from disaster.

I laboriously reloaded after the first shot—the turkey I had aimed at did not seem to be adversely affected, so I took my second shot at a different bird. That turkey also seemed impervious to the bullet, but I was denied a third shot, whether at him or one of the others. I was in the process of reloading for a third shot when the owner of the turkeys entered the scene, running and shouting for me to stop shooting his turkeys.

I didn’t know that our neighbors had changed from a white family with a passel of kids, one of them a beautiful red-haired cross-eyed girl about my age, but a young girl that had all the attributes of a mature woman, or at least all the visible attributes of a mature woman. A black family was now living on the farm—yes, that’s what we called African-Americans back in the olden days—and the turkey-farmer was big and moving swiftly in my direction, shouting at me to stop shooting, so I wisely matched his speed in the opposite direction and headed for home as fast as my bare feet could carry me.

I never knew whether my bullets struck either of my turkey targets. I would hope that I missed completely, but I was afraid to ask my stepfather. I told him about my error in thinking the turkeys were wild, and he just laughed, then went into a long discourse on the use of firearms and safety after telling me that there were no wild turkeys in that part of the state.

I don’t know whether the neighbor ever came to our house to talk to my stepfather, or whether my stepfather went to his house. I have my doubts that either happened. As for my hunting efforts with my rifle, I never again went toward the turkey farm, with or without my rifle—I had lost most of my attraction for shooting at anything, whether animal, vegetable, mineral or otherwise.

The rifle is in my possession now. In the early days of our marriage, I used it for collateral to get enough money to buy gasoline for our 250 mile trip home from visiting my wife’s relatives. Many years later my brother-in-law returned the rifle to me for the exact amount of the collateral—five dollars. I realize that doesn’t sound like much, but gas was only 22 cents a gallon in 1954.

I treasure that rifle. I treasure it so much that it’s stripped down into three pieces, stock, barrel and bolt, and stored in three different places in my home.  Finding all three pieces would be a daunting task for a burglar—in fact, I’m not sure that I can find them—and should an intruder enter while the house is occupied the task would be even more laborious and completely unneccessary because I have a veritable arsenal of weapons readily available for such an occasion, as do most patriotic and conscientious citizens in my neck of the woods.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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My red-haired blue-eyed neighbor . . .

We moved to the farm in Mississippi at the end of the school year in Tennessee. The home of the nearest neighbor on our left was visible, perhaps a quarter of a mile away on the opposite side of the two-lane graveled road. The nearest neighbor on our right was farther away, perhaps a mile or so away, and there resided a family comprised of the father and the mother and, as they say in the southern hemisphere, a passel of young ‘uns.

There were several boys, stair-steps in age but all younger than I, and one girl, a beautiful red-haired woman-girl somewhere near my age, perhaps a bit older than I but much more attractive, with just one exception. That lovely auburn-haired girl with the azure blue eyes was—I won’t say she was cursed with those eyes, nor will I say she was blessed with them. I will only say that she had what my mother referred to as A&P eyes, namely that one looked toward the Atlantic and the other toward the Pacific.

The video below shows various girls that have deliberately crossed their eyes for the camera. Compared with my beautiful red haired neighbor, they all look normal. Click on the black screen below to watch the video, and be sure to turn up the sound for some catchy music—enjoy!

In this respect the girl was a reflection of her mother, a seldom seen lady with the same flaming red hair and azure blue eyes that never seemed to be focused on the same object, each seemingly independent of the other, apparently looking in opposite directions. I don’t remember whether any of the boys had inherited the eye aberrations, primarily because I paid very little attention to the boys or their eyes—they may in fact have been replicas of their mother, but my thoughts and my eyes were always focused on their sister. I do remember that all the boys had red hair, undoubtedly inherited from their mother.

Their dark-haired father worked somewhere away from home and was seldom seen, even on weekends. I don’t remember that he ever spoke to me—he may have felt that I was just another one of his kids, although my blond, almost white hair should have been a dead giveaway—perhaps he shared the same visual affliction with his wife and children.

I know, I know—I’m being ungracious and I don’t mean to be that way. I’m just telling the story as it was, without any attempt to gild the lily. The daughter was a beautiful creature, blue eyes and creamy skin with a sprinkling of cute freckles, a complexion and a countenance that reflected her age. I was only twelve at the time—okay, twelve and a half, but for some time I had been uncomfortably aware of certain physical differences between boys and girls and between girls and women. Believe me, the girl left no doubt as to her gender. The only doubt raised—so to speak—was of her chronological age.

At any time that I bring up memories of the farm and of the red-haired girl with the striking blue eyes, I immediately recall a line from the Wreck of the Hesperus, a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1842. My first contact with the poem was a hundred years later in 1942 when I was a fourth grader at Miss Mary’s elementary school.

In Wordsworth’s epic poem the captain lashes his daughter to the mast to prevent her from being washed overboard in a violent storm. The ship breaks up on the reefs and the daughter is found dead, still lashed to the mast. The only line I remember coherently from the poem is blue were her eyes, blue as the skies, blue as the blue dress she wore.

Yep, times have changed—I defy anyone to show me a fourth grade teacher today with the temerity to present such obsolete reading material to a class. And I submit that it may be difficult to find a fourth grade teacher that is familiar with the poem. I am privy to much of the material presented in today’s schools through contact with my grandchildren, up to and including the college level, and I feel safe in saying that poetry, particularly poetry from the ages, is outmoded, unfashionable, gone the way of cursive writing in our schools.

Students of today, if required at all to apply pencil or pen to paper, choose to print rather than using cursive writing as taught with the old-time Spencer handbooks. The essay questions used in my school days, beginning in elementary school and continuing through college, have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and it is doubtful whether they can ever be restored. The students don’t like essay questions, and the teachers don’t like to create the questions and grade the answers—too time consuming. Bummer!

I just reviewed the last several paragraphs and I realize that I have digressed from my topic, that of the red-haired girl. I offer my abject apology and I will return to the subject of this posting, to wit:

I was only favored with a few weekends during that summer to visit with the family. We kids played kick-the-can, tag, hide-and-seek, pussy-in-the-corner, hop-scotch and similar games, exercises virtually unknown by today’s youth. I have vivid memories of Saturday when it rained all day, and all of us were banished to the barn hayloft—the house was too small to contain us and our antics. I never knew how long the family had lived there. I only know that they were there in the spring when we moved to the farm, and were gone when school started in the fall, replaced by a black family that raised turkeys, and yes, I have in mind a posting relating to the turkeys—stay tuned.

The red-haired girl and her family were gone by the time school started in the fall, so I never had the opportunity to share a seat on the school bus for our 12-mile daily ride to school. Even had she and her family not moved away, the pleasure would have been brief because around Christmas time my stepfather created a situation that would allow him to get rid of his familial responsibilities The crops were in, nothing had been planted for the next growing season, the flock of chickens had been appropriately thinned and the survivors fattened, one mule sold and the other found dead behind the barn—a death that deserves a separate posting so stay tuned—two Fox Terriers had been dispatched to dog heaven, and our milk cow had been serviced to reproduce herself in early summer, and yes, that also deserves a separate posting—stay tuned!

Click here for the story of the family’s breakup on the farm—it’s a tale well told, one that involves a question, Jergen’s Lotion, a cheek severely slapped, a cheek brutally scratched, a pan of biscuits, a shotgun, a race for the woods and a Model-A Ford roadster—not exactly an epic but a story with lots of earthy pathos and drama.

If there was anything else to tell about my relationship with the cute red-haired cross-eyed girl, something perhaps ranging somewhere between prurient and obscene, I would proudly post it in detail, all in capital letters with lots of exclamation points. I suppose I could fabricate something, but I don’t want to tell a lie—embellish, perhaps, but not an outright lie, not at this late stage in life. I already have a heap to answer for, and I have no wish to add to to that heap.

Nope, nothing happened, not even in the hayloft, and I’ll close with a quote from the words of John Greenleaf Whittier in Maud Muller: For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these—it might have been. And just between you and me and the barn hayloft, had I known then what I know now, it would have been!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
 

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The purloined watermelon . . .

Some years ago I had a friend, a relative by marriage, one that I loved and felt as close to as I did my only brother—closer, in fact, given the fact that I knew him longer and better than I did my brother. My friend left this realm for another some fifteen years ago, and a few years before his death, in his view having strayed from the fold, he became a born-again Christian.

He became active in his church and tithed faithfully, both in coin of the realm and in services to the church and to his fellow parishioners. He professed his firm belief that he would spend eternity in heaven, among family members, relatives and friends, and felt that he had no reason to doubt that belief, that he had turned his life around and earned the right to enter there. I, in turn, also believe that at this moment he is there, moving freely among those long-departed family members, relatives and friends, laughing and joking and probably barbecuing for them and for the angels.

I don’t recall whether he had an epiphany that prompted the change in his life, but he told me something that he did shortly after he was born again, something that he felt he was obligated to do. He said that as a teenager many years before his return to the Christian religion—his makeover, so to speak—he stole a watermelon from a neighboring farmer’s field. After his return to the Christian faith he went to that farmer, apologized for his action and offered monetary compensation based on the prevailing price for a similar melon. He said that his spirit soared—well, what he actually said was that he felt a lot better after the farmer accepted the compensation and forgave him for his transgression.

I’m reasonably certain that he acknowledged—and made appropriate amends for—any other transgressions as best he could, given the possibility that other transgressions existed.

I have reminisced on his story of the watermelon theft many times over the years, and I still find it remarkable that he remembered his action and felt obliged to make amends for the theft. I find myself speculating that there may have been other, more significant transgressions to account for in one way or another, whether  material compensation or a simple admission of guilt and a plea for forgiveness. In any event, the theft of the watermelon is the only transgression he confided in me.

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I also have stolen watermelons—and cantaloupes and honeydew melons—from a farmer’s field, not once but numerous times. I was a young GI based in south Georgia on a US Air Force base surrounded by bounteous fields, their crops easily seen along side country roads.

The fields were replete in season with such delicacies as watermelons and cantaloupes, ripened in the hot Georgia sun and ready for harvesting and quite vulnerable to theft, particularly by thieves operating under cover of darkness. I am sorrowed by the fact that I cannot render compensation for those thefts because of the passage of time. That was almost sixty years ago, and the affronted farmer has been tending crops in heaven for many years. Besides, those fields probably sport subdivisions now rather than crops.

The best I can do is to vow that I will never steal another watermelon or cantaloupe in the future. I have already expressed my remorse to the proper authorities in my prayers, and I will take my chances when I stand for reconciliation and entry into el cielo—heaven.

That’s my watermelon story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2011 in Childhood, death, Family, farming, food, Humor, Uncategorized

 

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A one-mule syrup making operation . . .

I recently posted the story of the death of a favorite uncle. He was killed in a freak accident involving his ten-year-old son, a farm tractor and a grist mill. Click here to read the full story.

In listing the various businesses and occupations of my Uncle Esker, I overlooked his syrup mill where he made some gloriously sweet ribbon cane syrup with the help of  a mule. The mule was tethered to a boom that caused him to walk in an endless circle in order to turn the gears that ground the juice out of the fresh stalks of cane. The stalks were stripped of leaves and dirt and hand-fed into a set of grinding gears, and the cane juice traveled down a wooden trough to the boiling pot. The hand-feeding part of the operation was very dangerous—if one encountered a one-armed person in rural areas of Alabama in those days, the odds were that the person had been careless in pushing the cane stalks into the gears and included his hand and part of his arm into the mechanism. Accidents such as that were rarely fatal, but almost every incident required amputation of the mangled hand and arm.

No person or animal, not even a mule, could be expected to walk in a circle hour after hour and be satisfied with its work and its surroundings. However, this mule was equipped with blinders, a harness with leather side pieces that fit on his head and blocked his vision on both sides. While wearing this apparatus he could only see straight ahead, and those in the know said that it fooled him into believing he was going somewhere other than in a continuous circle. Apparently it fooled him, but I don’t believe that it would fool me—of course I am a bit smarter than the mule—at least I would like to think so.

We kids spent a lot of time hanging around the syrup mill for several reasons, not the least of which was that Uncle Esker would use his pocket knife to cut off joints of the ribbon cane, then peel the outer layer from the joint and cut the cane into bite-size pieces, and from that point it was pure pleasure for us. We chewed the pieces until we had coaxed out and swallowed all the juice, then spit out the chewed part and selected another bite. Few, perhaps none, of today’s children will ever experience the simple pleasure of chewing ribbon cane for its juice, and that’s a shame, albeit a rather messy process.

Another of the syrup mills’ pleasures was riding the mule. Sometimes as many as four of us were placed astraddle of the mule’s back and were carried around and around at a leisurely pace—about the pace of a mule walking, so to speak—playing cowboy and Indians, cocking our fingers and pointing at imaginary figures in the surrounding area and making the gunshot sound with our voices—you, the reader, know what I’m talking about. We even simulated the sound of our bullets ricocheting off rocks when we missed our elusive targets—of course, I rarely missed.

I can’t recall ever being told anything about the process of converting cane juice into table syrup. I know only that the juice was filtered and boiled and ultimately ended up in a bottle or a bucket. The syrup of choice then, and perhaps now, in Alabama was named The Pride of Dixie. Folks in that area used those initials , POD, to describe anything that they found satisfactory or attractive, whether in taste or appearance and if satisfied with something they would say, Well, that’s really POD! In other words, it was at least as good as the Pride of Dixie syrup—okay, I guess you had to be there.

Now you know as much about a primitive one mule, one man syrup mill as I do. Some may still exist in some undeveloped countries but they are ancient history in the United States.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Family, farming, food, Humor

 

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Death, an indentured servant, Ruby Lee, Bonnie and me . . .

From Wikipedia:

Indentured servant: A worker, typically a laborer or tradesman, under contract to an employer for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities.

In my sixteenth year I was subjected to the duties of an indentured servant. I lived and worked on an Alabama farm owned by a man that was married to my first cousin. My home was broken, just as it had been periodically for the previous nine years, ever since my mother took a second husband. I had just returned to Mississippi after a circuitous journey that took me from Mississippi to Midland, Texas and on to El Paso, Texas and from there to jail in Valley Park, Missouri then to New York City for several weeks and then back to Mississippi, all in a period of less than one year. Click here for a comprehensive rendition of that Jason-like search for the Golden Fleece!

I did not voluntarily enter into indentured service—I had no choice. My mother had once again severed ties with my stepfather and Ruby Lee, my first cousin, was the only relative that was willing to shoulder the burden of looking after me. I would be remiss if I did not reveal that one of my sisters agreed to take me in, but became incensed when my mother offered the princely sum of $5 to assist in buying school clothes for the coming semester. The offer offended my sister and she scolded my mother, saying that my place was with my mother, and she should not pass that responsibility on to others. I hasten to add that my mother’s request for my sister to accept the somewhat difficult task of taking me in, her offer of $5 to assist the process, and my sister’s refusal to accept either the offer of money or the request to take me in aroused no animosity in me—the request to take me in, the offer of money and the ultimate refusal of both did not matter to me then and are of no consequence to me now. Not only have I survived—I have actually thrived in spite of all the hurdles placed in my path. I soared over all of them and landed safely.

Ruby Lee and her husband, Bonnie, agreed to take me in and provide a home for me and continue my schooling, and in return I would assist her and her husband in working a small farm, doing all the things that any farmer does—mind you, this was in the days of two-mule farms—we’re not talking about diesel tractors and milking barns and mile-long rows of crops and a cadre of hired hands. We’re talking about a hard-scrabble existence with two mules, one wagon, one cow, some chickens, a few pigs, a house cat and a yard dog and virtually no future, aside from decades of living from hand to mouth dependent on fair weather and good crops. With my addition to the family, the farm now had a cadre of one hired hand. Yes, that’s me in the image above, trying to dig my way to China just to get away from the farm! No, I’m kidding—that’s a photo I found online and I used it just for fun—at my age I’ve learned that one cannot dig all the way to China!

I left the farm after several short months. Click here to see the relationship between parched peanuts and crawling skin, and how my dog and I became farmers. That posting will also detail the reasons why I left the farm.

Now to the crux of this posting—it’s about Ruby and her life in later years, and most of what I know about her is hearsay, information gleaned from various relatives during infrequent visits, several that were generated by deaths and the requisite attendance at funerals. I never saw or heard anything about her husband Bonnie or her two young sons after I left the farm, and in all the intervening years I saw Ruby only once—we were together at a brother-in-law’s funeral in Mississippi.

I was there with my wife, and Ruby was there with her domestic partner. That relationship was all the buzz among her relatives attending the funeral—not that the buzzing took place within her hearing, of course. Ruby seemed very happy and secure in her relationship and showed no indication of what her future held. Several years later, I learned from one of my sisters that Ruby had taken her own life, although nobody was certain of the method she used. The consensus was that she had died from a gunshot wound. There was lots of speculation about her suicide among relatives and friends, but nothing concrete was ever known.

An interesting point about conversation at the funeral between Ruby and her erstwhile indentured servant—neither of us touched, even lightly, about our time together on the farm. I was filled with curiosity but I refused to broach the subject. She volunteered nothing concerning her husband killing my dog in my absence, nothing about their failure to enroll me in school per their agreement with my mother, nothing about her husband’s whereabouts and life since their divorce, and nothing about her two sons that went with her husband when they divorced. The absence of her speaking of those details is telling—I firmly believe that she had buried the details of those events deeply in the recesses of her mind, either inadvertently or deliberately.

No matter—whatever her thoughts may have been of the details of those events, whether negative or positive, she took them to her grave, at least as far as I am concerned. She may have discussed them with others over the years but if so, the discussions never reached me.

Many years have passed since my employment as an indentured servant, and many of my memories of that time are pleasant. I feel no rancor, none for Ruby nor for her husband. They are fixed in my memory, and when my thoughts turn to those days I tend to remember the good times and push the bad times away. I discuss them now only in order to provide the information to my children, and of course to any others that may find the facts interesting, for whatever reason or reasons. Quite aside from the fact that I enjoy writing about various facets of my life, these postings to Word Press are in nature autobiographical, thoughts that I can leave for posterity—ooooh, I just had shivers run up and down my spine!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2010 in death, education, Family, farming, Humor, pets

 

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