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Jawbreakers, bubble gum & molested chickens

World War II was over—the bombs had eradicated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and large segments of their populations, and neither my stepfather’s carpenter talents nor my talent to deliver newspapers were needed in Tennessee. The modular homes were being disassembled and the areas where hundreds of families had been living would soon revert to the wild. We left Happy Valley, Tennessee and returned to Mississippi because my stepfather had recently bought a 40-acre farm, complete with a skid-mounted grocery store with one manually operated gasoline pump, a small house, a large barn, a chicken house and an adequate outhouse.

His purchase included one milk cow, one white mule, one brown mule and a motley flock of chickens—White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds with a sprinkling of speckled hens. The flock was serviced by one lone rooster, a Rhode Island Red, hence his name Red.

Oh, and one more item concerning the chickens. Several of the hens were in poor physical shape. I learned soon after we moved to the farm that the hens had been—ah, had been subjected to—uh, ah, okay, I’ll just come right out and say it—they had been sexually molested, presumably by that dolt of a teenage farm boy in the family that previously owned the farm.

That was a presumption voiced by my stepfather, except that he didn’t use the term sexually molested—many of the words he used to explain the physical condition of the hens and to express his displeasure were limited to only one or two syllables. I’ve often pondered on that presumption, wondering and speculating on whether he arrived at that conclusion from reading, from other conversations or from experience—my stepfather grew up on a farm in Alabama.

I never knew, and I definitely was unwilling to question him. I’ll get back to you later with more information on that, so stay tuned. Until then, I’ll close that portion of life on the farm by saying that my stepfather put the hens out of their misery with blasts from a 16-gauge shotgun, after which the carcasses were buried far from the house, feathers and all, except for those that were scattered by the pellets.

There were no cats, an absence unusual for a farm. Also included in the purchase were two small terrier dogs, a pair that served no useful purpose and came to an untimely end through action taken by my stepfather soon after we took residence on the farm, again with the 16-gauge shotgun.

Also included in his purchase of the farm, to my dismay, were several acres of unpicked cotton. For the edification of those familiar with Roy Clark’s song in which he sang proudly that he never picked cotton, I am here to tell you that I have picked cotton and I didn’t like it. Early in cotton season, pickers were paid a penny a pound to pick, and later in
the season when the bowls were sparse and farther apart, pickers earned
two cents a pound.

I strived mightily to pick a hundred pounds in one day, but never made it, no matter how early I started and how late I stayed in the cotton field, and no matter how many times I peed in the cotton sack, an time-honored country-boy scheme to add weight to his pickings. Another way to increase the weight was to start picking at or before good daylight and pick frantically while the dew was still on the cotton, thereby adding the weight of the water—not much, but pennies went a long way back in the good old days.

One penny would buy a cigarette, two crackers with one’s choice of cheese or bologna or sausage, and a plethora of penny candies—an all-day sucker, a jaw-breaker, one piece of bubble gum or one stick of gum, a small handful of jelly beans and one’s choice of various individually wrapped candies such as Tom’s Peanut-butter Logs.

I have a vivid memory of reading a newspaper article saying that the price of cotton paid at auction was forty-one cents a pound, a total of $205 for a 500 pound bale. I was brash enough to ask my stepfather why he paid only two cents a pound for pickers when he was getting twenty times that amount, and he treated me to a prolonged lesson in economics—that effectively broke me from asking any more questions.

I have many more stories to tell about my brief life on the farm. One involves a beautiful cross-eyed redhead, another a tree filled with turkeys and still another of a wild cat I captured and thereby indirectly caused his death, so stay tuned—there’s more to come.

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

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Alabama sans bathrooms . . .

I lived with my family in several houses before we moved from Alabama to Mississippi. Our first home in that city was on Fifth Street South. Click here for a sordid but hilarious tale of the itch, and of two naked kids undergoing treatment for their supposed infection of scabies.

The images shown at right show outhouses ranging from the most basic to the most outlandish. Note the brick outhouse in the center—is there anyone, anywhere, that has not heard this remark? Boy, she’s built like a brick—uh, like a brick—well, you know, like a brick outhouse! The last privy pictured is perhaps the ultimate outhouse, a two-story number with a ground entrance and a sky walk for the upper floors.

The house on Fifth Street was my first exposure to running water in the house and its accompanying refinement, a bathroom equipped with a bathtub and a commode. My prior residences in Alabama had neither, nor did the homes of our relatives in Alabama. Water was hauled in from the well or pumped from an underground source and hauled in, and baths were taken in a #2 wash tub or via a wash pan and a wash cloth. We mostly didn’t call them wash cloths—we called them wash rags because that’s what they were, squares of cloth taken from ragged sheets or towels or other cloth items that were no longer used for their original purposes. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were way ahead of the current recycling craze now sweeping the country!

In lieu of an inside toilet, our necessaries were outside and away from our domiciles, usually placed but not always, downwind from the house, depending on the direction of prevailing breezes, and at some locations the necessary was in any location at a distance from the house that provided a modicum of privacy, regardless of the prevailing breezes—get the picture? When a man-made structure existed, it was called privy, toilet, outhouse, the little house behind the big house and numerous other names, mostly vulgar terms. Regardless of its name, location or composition each adhered to this corruption of Shakespeare’s immortal line, namely That which we call a toilet, by any other name, would smell the same—hey, I said the line was corrupted, didn’t I? And it rhymes!

Now for the gist of this posting—it relates to personal cleansing, or bathing. I hesitate to use this term for an early Alabama bathing facility, but I don’t know how to get around using it, so I’ll borrow a truism from one of our former presidents—it is what it is, and it was what it was, so I’ll call it a wash hole and continue from that point.

A wash hole in my childhood days was any declivity in a stream that held enough water to enable one to get wet all over, and through the use of soap cleanse oneself—take a bath. As a child I was exposed—literally—to bathing in wash holes, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Farming in my early childhood days, in my area and my era, was a full time job from daylight till dark beginning with Monday’s daylight  and ending at Saturday’s noontime—from that point farm work ceased. Menfolks would leave their toils at noon, eat a hearty dinner, nap for awhile in the shade, usually on the front porch and then head for the wash hole for their weekly overall bath—seriously!

That Saturday afternoon bath held good through Saturday night and all the way to the next week on the following Saturday afternoon, and then the process would be repeated. In that interim period of one week, ablutions were restricted to face and neck and hands and arms and feet—unless one were caught in the rain, nothing else got wet until wash hole time came around again. I cannot speak for womenfolks and their bathing habits. At my tender age I was never privy—pardon the pun—to their bathroom habits or their methods or frequency of ablutions. Whatever methods were involved, the women always managed to appear and smell much better than their male counterparts.

Armed with soap, towels, clean shirts and overalls or trousers following Saturday’s dinner and brief siesta, the men and boys, regardless of their ages—even the little ones such as I—would head for the wash hole and once there, strip and wade in or dive in if the depth of the wash hole allowed it. It could be a small pond, a deep spot in a creek or a gravel pit filled with spring water. Diving required a working knowledge of the wash hole’s depth—click here for a tragic tale of a wash hole’s depth overestimated.

The hours from noon on Saturday until Monday’s return to the fields provided a respite from toil and worry, and virtually everyone–men, women and children headed for town. In my case the nearest town was five miles distant—as a child I have covered that distance in conveyances ranging from a mule-drawn wagon to a Ford Model A to an interstate bus. The trip in a wagon brings up more pleasant memories. The men sat on the wagon seat and in the wagon bed—upright cane-bottom chairs were placed for the womenfolk, and the kids were left to hang on anywhere they could find room. Depending on the length of the wagon tongue, one or two kids could sit on the rear portion for a really rocky ride. For most of the five miles we ranged ahead of the wagon chasing rabbits, picking blackberries along the roadside, throwing rocks at flying birds—we never hit one—and luxuriating in all the pleasures of childhood. Once into town with the mules tied up at the courthouse square and munching on hay, we were pretty much on our own.

The two things I remember best about the town square were Wimpy’s Hamburgers—a name taken from the Popeye comic strip featured in most newspapers—and the movie house, placed on opposite sides of the square. Movies were shown only on Friday and Saturday nights, the same films on both nights, and they usually ran for several weeks. The fare usually consisted of two feature-length films, termed a double feature, one a cowboy show and the other a detective or love story, supplemented by newsreels, cartoons and previews of coming attractions, all presented in black-and-white—-color was still in the future.

But I digress—back to the wash hole. I learned to swim in various wash holes by lying in shallow water and propelling myself along by my fingertips along the bottom, and graduated from that to pulling myself along in deep water with the same motion—the only difference was that my hands were pulling water towards me instead of pulling me along the pool’s bottom. From that point I mastered virtually every one of the dozens of swimming strokes—nah, not really—I still use my hands to propel myself along to keep my head above water to avoid drowning, a simple act that would eliminate drowning as a cause of death if learned and practiced by everyone.

The unvarnished truth is that I really learned to swim when my brother-in-law Elmer tossed me off a bluff into Pearl River, a stream that runs through the Hobolochitto Swamp in south Mississippi. In those years the swamp included alligators of all sizes, and I could feel teeth nipping at my toes from the time I hit the water. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the bluff, I thrashed and splashed my way successfully to the opposite side of the stream. I was reasonably sure that Elmer would rescue me if I foundered, but I decided not to risk sinking to the bottom in order to be rescued. No, I didn’t use the crawl I learned in wash holes. I combined the overhand front crawl with some stupendous flutter kicking—any alligator would have avoided the area on the belief that it was occupied by a monstrous specimen of its own species or perhaps of an unknown species.

My tale of being tossed into an alligator-infested river is true—I know—I was there! Sometimes, depending on my audience, I tell the story differently. I claim that I survived by swimming faster than the alligator that came after me, a Herculean feat made possible by the fact that I was swimming in clear water, as opposed to what the alligator faced.

That’s my story of bathrooms, outhouses, swimming and alligators and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2010 in Humor, sports, swimming

 

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11th Street South and a gravel pit . . .

Eleventh Street South is where I lived for a couple of years that included my first year in elementary school. It was the second house we lived in following our migration from Vernon, Alabama to Columbus, Mississippi. That first house, located on Fifth Street South, has some vivid memories I intend to share with my visitors, memories that are just as fresh as when they were acquired. The house was where I and my youngest sister were administered to by our mother—medicated—when she became convinced that we both had or soon would have scabies—the itch. Click here for that story—it’s worth the visit!

I lived on Eleventh Street with my mother and three older sisters in a small frame house, a three-room shot-gun house, so called because it was said that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the shot would go straight through the house and out the back door. The house boasted electricity and running water but had no bathroom. The necessary, a one-hole privy or outhouse, was located a few yards from the back door. Ours was the next-to-last on the block, and Fuqua’s Grocery was located at the other end of the block, a mercantile that figured prominently in our lives, especially mine—it’s a fit subject for a posting, and deserves individual attention. It’s mentioned in a previous posting, and among other things includes a discussion of my first job and my first firing—click here for that posting.

The last house was the residence wherein resided my best friend Tootie—his name was Edward Earl but he was nicknamed Tootie and for good reason—he had a predeliction for producing gas—flatulence—he would have been more aptly named Flatus—that has a nice Roman ring to it—a Latin lilt, so to speak. Tootie figures prominently in this posting and will be featured in a future story concerning a significant Saturday, a day when Tootie and I were privileged to ride in a city police car for a short distance and a day on which in current times would have warranted an Amber Alert.

Just as a harbinger of tales to come, Tootie once nailed the door to our privy shut—I’m unsure why, but the act was probably his revenge for something I had said or done. My mother had to borrow a hammer from a neighbor in order to pull the nails and put the family back in business.

Just as an aside, back in the 1980s while living in the Washington, D.C. area, I spotted an auto license plate that read FLATUS. I was traveling to my job in downtown D.C. with a friend and his wife. I laughed when I saw the plate and they asked me what was so funny. I told them and they both laughed, but after a short pause the wife said, “What does that mean?” Her husband unashamedly admitted that he didn’t know, so I had to explain. In their defense, I must tell you that they were from Minnesota, born and bred there—that should be adequate explanation for anyone that remembers Rose Nylund on  TV’s Golden Girls, portrayed by Betty White as a typical native of Minnesota.

The asphalt pavement ended at our house, and the two-lane gravel road continued straight for a short distance and then made a sharp left turn, almost ninety degrees, before continuing on into rural areas, outside city limits. If, instead of turning left, a driver or pedestrian continued straight on a two-rut road for a mile or so, they would come to a large gravel pit filled with water—cool, clear, blue and deep water, a magnet for the boys from a nearby orphanage, the Palmer Home—and for me. Click here for a brief history of the home. Over the years the orphanage has grown and is now known as the Palmer Home for Children. Click here for an update.

My mother often threatened to send me to the Palmer Home unless I changed my ways, specifically concerning my frequent trips to the gravel pit. I never told her that I would welcome the transfer because I envied the kids there. They had all sorts of animals—cows and horses and dogs and goats and a farm where they grew vegetables—they were allowed to feed the animals and milk the cows and work in the garden and had what appeared to be unrestricted access to the gravel pit—in fact, the gravel pit was on property owned by the Home.

For those unfamiliar with the term, gravel pits are created when material—gravel—for use in road building and construction, is mined in an open pit. Because the water table was high in my area, a grand swimming pool was formed—a pool of cool, clear, blue and deep water, a magnet for the boys that lived at Palmer Orphanage, and of course for me.

On a memorable day in a hot summer, memorable for the heat and the cooling effect of gravel pit water, but most memorable for me a day in which my mother came to the gravel pit looking for me and found me. I was blissfully floating around on my back in the middle of the pit, face upturned to the sun and eyes closed, and a clamor arose.  I looked around and watched my friends from the orphanage scramble for their clothes and head away from the pit towards the orphanage in considerable haste. And I saw my mother standing on the bank, my short pants in one hand and my leather belt in the other.

With the departure of the other boys the area grew silent, a silence broken only by my efforts to stay afloat and offshore as long as I could. After awhile my mother told me I might as well come on in because she wasn’t leaving without me. I stayed out in that cold clear deep water until my lips turned blue and everything I had shriveled up—you know, like fingertips, toes, etc. When I finally came out my mother refused to let me have my shorts, but instead pointed me in the direction of home and ordered me to march.

And march I did, driven on by frequent pops on my bare derierre. With each pop I accelerated my pace a bit, but each time my mother told me not to run, that it would be even worse when she caught me. The blows from the narrow belt were not delivered in anger—I would like to believe they were delivered with love, but with repetition they began to take a toll, much as does the fabled Chinese water torture process. She whipped me for the full mile, all the way to our house, along the two-rut road and into the middle of the street, past Tootie’s house where that worthy was standing on the front porch, laughing and pointing at me as I hopped, skipped and jumped along, and finally after an eternity, through the front door of our house.

No, that derierre above is not mine—that’s a plastic replica of Donatello’s sculpture of David. The colorful ones on the right are those of naked cyclists, presented here only because the colors are as fascinating as they are functional.

I learned a lesson that day, not to stay away from the gravel pit, but to be far more furtive—sneaky, so to speak—in planning my trips to the gravel pit. I couldn’t help it—it was in my nature—as a child I was a vagabond and probably would have been well served with around-the-clock supervision. Had I been a a few years older I would have been riding the rails with the multitude of others during the Great Depression.

As a child I was inexorably drawn to water in all its locations, whether pond, lake, creek, river, swimming pool, mud puddle or sewage ditch—yes, sewage ditch—our next home, also located on the south side of town, was adjacent to an open sewage ditch where I spent many blissful hours. Because of water’s attraction I had great difficulty staying at home, a trait—call it a fault if you will, but I consider it a trait—less admirable than others but nevertheless a trait rather than a fault. There will be additional postings in reference to my fascination with water in all its aspects. That’s a threat as well as a promise, so be forewarned and govern yourselves accordingly.

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

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“Which is the boys’ room?” An unscientific study . . .

In deference to any viewer with a limited amount of time available to read this posting, or the remote possibility of any viewer with a limited attention span, I will make this posting brief. My intention is to provide readers with a method of determining the room, or rooms in which the boys in the family slept in the “good old days,” specifically in old country homes, residences which in most cases sported a little house behind the big house. That little house enjoyed many names, some rather vulgar but all descriptive—outhouse, privy, toilet, outback (no relation to the restaurant chain), “the necessary” (for those of genteel backgrounds) and other appellations too numerous to enumerate.

Special Note: Enumerate is not misspelled—it’s a verb meaning, “to name or to list.” Numerate, conversely, is an adjective meaning, “having a good basic knowledge of arithmetic and able to understand and work with numbers.” I am well aware that I may possibly be the last one to learn and understand the difference—I only define the terms here for my own use as I read (and re-read) my posts.

Now back to my dissertation on windows, boys and nocturnal habits:

By walking a quick circle around old-time country homes with a cursory examination (visual, of course) of the window screens and window sills, one could (and in some areas still can) unerringly pinpoint the rooms in which the younger boys slept.

The little house, for obvious reasons, was usually located a significant distance from the big house. The trek to it was easily made in daylight and fair weather, but at night the path was not so easily traveled unless the skies were clear and a full moon shined down on the route. Under a dark sky, minus the light from billions of stars and an absent moon, the trip could be fraught with perils, including but not limited to mosquitoes, four-legged varmints and snakes (some poisonous and some not) but all had a debilitating effect on a walker when they slithered across the path).

And here it must be noted that country ladies had no fear of cold or wet or dark nights—their bedrooms were equipped with an item with various names—the most delicate term was “chamber pot,” usually ceramic, with requisite designs reflecting the Victorian era and the homes in which chamber pots were used. In my young-boy days and in my economic circles we called our chamber pots “syrup buckets.”

Yep, we used syrup buckets in the same way ladies in the Victorian era used ceramic chamber pots. Our chamber pots were not as large and not as attractively decorated as were Victorian chamber pots, but they were decorated. All over the southern states (I can only vouch for that region),  most syrup buckets proudly displayed decals indicating that their former contents were produced and marketed by  the “Pride of Dixie Syrup Co. Inc.”

The decals were eventually loosened and lost, their lifespan determined by the secondary use of the bucket. Our chamber pots, as did those of the Victorian era, had lids but ours were flat metal, undecorated and rarely used, and a wire hanger for a handle. The handle was always used—otherwise a two-handed system would be needed to handle (so to speak) the bucket, whether for using it or carrying it. Without the handle, a boy holding the bucket for its intended use would need a third hand—well, there may be some exceptions, but I doubt it.

Okay, at this point I must admit that I cannot write a truncated posting—it’s just not in my nature. I was once charged by a college professor in a speech-class with using circumlocution to make a point. He said that I, rather effectively, used a round-about way to approach my subject, and thus its major point tended to come as a surprise to my audience.  It sounded all positive to me, but after class I hastened to the library to see what I was guilty of and learned this:

Circumlocution—the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea.

I came down from my high when I left the library, but I am still guilty as charged. This posting and most of my others—alright, all my others— are proof of that.

Now back to my thesis:

Syrup buckets had a limited capability to substitute for a trip to to the little house out back. Chamber pots were large and syrup buckets were considerably smaller, usually the one-gallon size. They were limited to 128 fluid ounces regardless of the liquid involved, and any effort to exceed that limit could be disastrous. The buckets filled up rather quickly, depending on the number of users and the amount of liquid one or more of the users may have ingested before retiring for the night. When not in use, the syrup bucket was kept under the bed, slid in just far enough to prevent anyone from kicking it over as they stumbled around in the dark.

And finally, the walk-around to determine where the boys slept:

A cursory glance at the window screens and the outside window sill would pin-point the wrong-doers. In RWNBs (Rooms With No Boys) screens and window sills would be clean and fully functional. Conversely, RWBs (Rooms With Boys) would produce stained and deteriorated metal screens and stained and deteriorated wooden window sills.

Urine is ninety-five percent water—its physical characteristics include color, odor, density and acidity. The latter characteristic—acidity—is the smoking gun in determining whether the boys are shirking their duty to use the syrup bucket in lieu of making the long and perilous trek to the outhouse, and instead are raising the window to a height sufficient enough to permit the offender to pee—pardon the expression—through the screen at the lowest possible level. At that level the screens will be stained white from the acidity, and eventually will sport holes large enough to accommodate flies, bees, wasps, hornets and various other flying insects.

Of course it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that females, regardless of age, even if blessed with the skills of an acrobat or afflicted with the abilities of a contortionist, would never commit such a faux pas. I mean, like, let’s face it, peeing through the window screen of an open window was then, and is now and should be, considered a violation of social norms in virtually any culture, an obvious demonstration of bad manners—most young girls did their best to conform to those social norms—most young boys were completely indifferent to social norms—they could not care less. I feel that I can say that with some authority because I am a product of that era and that area—a poster-boy of the times, so to speak.

Oh, and just one postscript:

The syrup buckets were commonly referred to as “pee cans,” a nomenclature  that was pronounced exactly as many southerners pronounce “pecans.” A pecan, of course, is “a smooth brown nut with an edible kernel similar to a walnut (from Wikipedia). Folks in the deep South had, and still have, a predilection for pronouncing the word pecan with a long “a” and the two syllables accented equally as follows: ( pee’ can’). That peculiar pronunciation produced (how’s that for alliteration!) a really dumb riddle—dumb, but known and parroted both by children and by adults (a real ice-breaker at cocktail gatherings).

The riddle:

If walnuts are on the wall and chestnuts are on the chest, where are the pee’ cans’?

The answer:

Under the bed.

Okay, just one more postscript:

I realize that some that may read this posting, especially someone from regions other than the deep South (the nether regions), will tend to place it in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” category. Please rest assured that everything is true, and I will bolster that assurance by using Jack Parr’s trademark catchphrase from The Tonight Show: I kid you not!




 
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Posted by on January 18, 2010 in Childhood, health, Humor

 

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