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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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Second marriages, stepfathers, travel and travail . . .

Before beginning this post I offer the following quote in defense of my babbling on interminably about myself—it’s by a writer that, for many years, has been one of my favorites:

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Walden—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

This posting is extracted from the plethora of memories I’ve retained of my mother’s second marriage and of the stepfather she allowed to enter my life. I relive those events frequently in my memories, and I feel that many, or at least some, may strike a chord in the memories of any viewers who might stumble upon my blog. Some of the memories are pleasant but others are painful—whether pleasant or painful, they’re my memories and I’m stuck with them. By relating and passing them on to others, perhaps I can enhance some of the pleasant memories and diminish some of the hurtful ones.

I must say, as always in the interests of full disclosure, that viewers will need to accept the accuracy of my memories as I relate them—in some instances none remain to support or deny them, and none is left who can, with any certainty, diminish or embellish them.

All are gone.

They exist only in my memories.

I am the last one standing.

When I was born, “I came into this world cold, naked, wet and hungry, and things have been downhill ever since.” I would cheerfully attribute that lament to the comic who said it, but I don’t remember who it was.

My birth occurred soon after my mother (Mama) divorced my father—at any rate that’s how the story goes. I accept that because I have no way of disputing it. I have documentary proof of my birth-date, when and where and to whom I was born, but I have no way of knowing when, or even if, the marriage was officially dissolved.

I suppose that since I was born out of wedlock, I came into the world, at least technically, as a little bastard (according to the accounts of some, I still am). In fact, during the early years there were various times when I disobeyed Mama and engaged (and got caught) in some forbidden enterprise, and she would sometimes exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, you little bastard—even if I must say such a word!” The exclamation was forcibly voiced, but always stemmed from pure love and was voiced with pure love, with humor lurking in the background.

Hester&JohnMama was 44 when she married her second husband. He was 48, a big man with a big stomach which significantly preceded him. He usually dressed in khaki pants and long-sleeved khaki shirts, with a black or brown tie held in place with a western-motif tie clip. The ensemble was grounded by western-style boots and topped with a broad-brimmed Stetson hat. He was 6-feet tall without the boots and Stetson—with them he presented a formidable appearance and took up a lot of space. He was born and grew up in Alabama, so his affinity for western garb probably stemmed from having lived and worked for several years in Texas, a state to which he would return a few years later with his new family.

A special note: The photo above shows Mama and my stepfather in later life, shortly before his death in 1970. I took this picture in 1969 during a visit I made prior to starting a combat tour in Viet Nam. Their on-and-off marriage spanned 28 years, from 1942 until 1970. That 28-year span included several lengthy separations, plus one divorce and one remarriage, all of which are excellent subjects for more postings. Apparently their relationship was one of “can’t live with and can’t live without.” In 1980 Mama died, having lived “without” for another 10 years.

My stepfather had bushy eyebrows, piercing dark eyes, almost black, and an ample nose under which, in permanent residence, was a broad black mustache. He always carried a heavy knob-handled wooden cane—not for support but to use as a pointer, to give directions to someone, for example. If necessary it could be used as a weapon, either for defense or offense. I witnessed its various uses as the years passed, and I noticed early-on that people tended to step aside as he neared them on sidewalks or in hallways, regardless of width.

When Mama’s second husband entered our lives I was nine years old and living in Columbus, Mississippi with my mother and two older sisters. The younger sister was just 18 months older than I—another sister (the eldest of three living sisters) was older and worked outside the home. The third sister was married and living with her husband in south Alabama. Mama’s first marriage yielded a total of seven children—five girls and two boys. One of the girls died at birth or shortly after she was born, and another died under the wheels of an auto driven by a drunk—I have no memories of either child, nor of the auto incident. And finally, there was a brother who would figure prominently in my life at a later date. He was little more than a shadowy figure at the time—I hardly knew him. When Mama remarried, my brother was overseas on duty with the US Navy, continuing a six-year enlistment which began in 1940.

My stepfather’s name was John, but during his brief courtship of my mother he insisted that my sisters and I call him “Uncle” John. My younger sister and I readily acquiesced to the name (there had been other “uncles”), but the elder sisters called him “Mister” (not Mister John, just Mister). They had numerous other names for him which they frequently used in the presence of others, but never in his. After the marriage he told everyone to call him “Papa John,” or “Papa.” I had no problem with the terms but my sisters, except for the youngest one, never used them—they continued to use the term “Mister.” The youngest sister resisted strongly, initially refusing to use any title, but finally became resigned to using “Papa.”

The couple married in summer, at the end of the school term. Soon after the brief civil ceremony, with the required minimum number of people present, the newlywed couple departed on what was, ostensibly, a honeymoon. If I ever knew where they went and how long they stayed I must have forgotten it, but I clearly remember where I went. I was shipped off to a sister who lived with her husband in Pritchard, Alabama, a small town near Mobile. I was told that the visit was my “summer vacation” and I believed it, although I wondered at the time why it was necessary for me to take all my clothing.

I would learn years later that my sister had agreed to accept me in her family in order to relieve my mother’s new husband of that responsibility. He had insisted on disposal of the two minor children, in one fashion or another, as a provision of the marriage—a prenuptial, so to speak, and one to which my mother apparently agreed.

Bummer.

So I was off to Pritchard and my sister, the other minor child to be disposed of, was similarly banished but not quite as far away—her “vacation” trip was to Vernon, Alabama, a small town 30 miles east of Columbus, to live with an aunt, one of my mother’s sisters who had made the same agreement with the newly-weds. Neither my sister nor I had any inkling that we had just been cast away, discarded, left on the side of the road like a couple of unwanted pets.

Our bogus vacations began when our school terms ended, but that status was reversed three months later. Shortly before the next school term began, we traveled to Long Beach, Mississippi, a small town near Gulfport, to join our mother and our new step-father. We thought the move was simply the end of our vacation, but we learned many years later that our mother had violated her “prenuptial agreement” to have us reared by relatives. She insisted that she had to have her children with her—I never knew what promises or threats she used, but they were successful. Her new husband relented and allowed us into the family.

Our travels and travails began in 1942 and would continue until 1949, the year that my youngest sister married and I enlisted in the military.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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