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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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Dempsey and his dad . . .

Dempsey was one of my many first-cousins, born in 1928, the younger of two sons born to Ellie, one of my mother’s sisters. Aunt Ellie was married to my Uncle Esker, a hard-working land-owner that lived with his family in a rural area some five miles south of Vernon,the county seat of Lamar County, Alabama. He  was a highly successful landowner, farmer, store keeper, blacksmith, syrup-maker, grist mill operator, auto mechanic, self-trained veterinarian and a husband and father.

He died under the wheels of a farm tractor, his head crushed by the lugs of the left rear wheel with his younger son, a boy of ten years, at the controls of the tractor. For the edification of anyone unfamiliar with lugs, they are the huge metal spikes on the rear wheels of some tractors, designed to allow the tractor to find traction in mud and loose soil. One can still see highway signs in rural areas prohibiting vehicles with lugs from operating on paved highways—for obvious reasons, of course. Those spikes can cause significant damage to asphalt pavements and bring death to living flesh, whether animals or humans.

It was an unfortunate and horrible accident, and it was impossible to know with any certainty how and why it happened. The tractor had a power take-off, and its broadband drive belt was hooked up to operate the grinding machines of grist mill at the time. Families came from farms and small communities from miles around to the grist mill with wagon loads of raw corn and grains and returned home with cornmeal and flour. The old-time tractor had no starter—its engine was started by a hand-crank from the front, as were many vehicles in those days, a procedure that often required two people for success—one to turn the crank and the other to operate the throttle and choke to provide the proper mixture of gasoline and air to start the engine.

Obviously the gearshift had to be in neutral when the engine started—otherwise the tractor would lurch forward  when the engine started, with predictable results for the person cranking the engine. The tractor should have been rendered immobile—that is, secured with safety chains or with barriers in front to keep it stationary while it was hooked up to the grist mill—it was not secured in any manner.

This was an accident waiting to happen, and it  happened. The tractor was not secured, and when the engine started the tractor was in gear and it lurched forward. My uncle slipped and fell and the left rear wheel crushed his head. His son either failed to place the gearshift in neutral before signaling his father to turn the crank, or by accident put the tractor into gear after the engine started, and before his father could move out of harm’s way—he was said to have died instantly.

I don’t know my uncle’s age or the year he died. There is no record in the Social Security Death records because this was just a short time after Social Security was established in 1935—I doubt that my uncle ever had a Social Security number. I was a little feller at the time, somewhere around five or six years of age, but I have vivid memories of my uncle’s  casket in my aunt’s house—the casket was closed, for obvious reasons. His casket was one of three  that I remember seeing in that same room in a period of perhaps five years  when I was a small boy. The others were those of my grandmother (my mother’s mother) and another uncle, one of my mother’s brothers. The life and unusual death of my mother’s brother is recorded in one of my postings. It involves my uncle, another patient in the asylum and a metal bedpan. Click here for that story—it’s worth the read.

In those days the deceased lay in state at home for a time, at least overnight, before being interred. This gave friends and relatives time to bring in flowers and food for the family and for the other mourners, and to tender their respect for the dead and condolences to the grieving family members. There were lots of flowers and lots of food at Aunt Ellie’s house—my uncle was a highly-respected man in the community, very active in his church in addition to his business activities, and people came from many miles around to attend his funeral.

I had big ears when I was a little boy—still do, as a matter of fact. I don’t mean that my ears are larger than normal—they aren’t. It’s just that I am unable to tune out conversations around me. I dislike dining at cafeterias because I am tuned in to every conversation at every table within earshot, and that becomes a bit overwhelming. As I moved around at my uncle’s wake, in the room and through the house and on the porch and in the yard, anywhere that mourners gathered, I gleaned information from people talking in low voices about the accident, going over the details and wondering how such a thing could have happened. I took in all the solemn voices and speculations and conclusions, and because I am blessed—or perhaps cursed—with a fairly decent memory, I have retained many memories of the event.

One of my most vivid memories of my Uncle Esker is of his huge barn across the highway from his house. I went with him one morning to feed the animals and to see the foal that he told me had been born the day before. It was a beautiful colt, brown with white markings. I stood in awe of the foal and my uncle asked me if I would like to have one like that. I answered in the affirmative, of course, and he told me that the colt was mine, but that I would have to wait until it grew up a bit before I could claim it.

No way—I claimed that colt that same day, and I could hardly wait to tell all my friends about my pony. I was the only kid in my circle and on my block and maybe in the entire city of Columbus, Mississippi that could claim to be the owner of such an animal, and I got as much mileage as I could with the information. My uncle died soon after the gift was made, and since he and I were the only ones that knew about the transaction, I laid no claim to the colt but I still feel, even to this day almost three-quarters of a century later that I once owned a beautiful white-faced and white-footed pony—that’s a very satisfying feeling—not many kids can make that claim!

I was not around Dempsey very much, and I didn’t know him well. I have no way of knowing how well he coped with the  knowledge that he was complicit in his father’s death. He died in 1977 at the age of 69 so whatever he felt and how he coped with his part of the accident is of no consequence now. We were four years apart in age, and few ten year old boys have much in common with six year old boys. I may have seen him three or four times in later years, but it would have been for very limited periods. The only concrete knowledge I have about him is that he worked in Birmingham, Alabama for Bama Foods, a company that produced jams and jellies for home and commercial consumption, as did most of my relatives from that period. I and my family have used their products for many years and I can highly recommend them—and no, I do not have any stock in the company!

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

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Childhood, death, drivers, Family, food, funeral

 

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E pluribus unum—out of many, one . . .

Yesterday I enjoyed a phone conversation with one of my nephews, a fellow that at one time had ten uncles, eight on his father’s side of the family and two on his mother’s side of her family. His father was one of nine boys, and his mother had two brothers making a total of ten uncles. Today I am the only one of the ten uncles still standing, reasonably erect, thus e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

Following the death of his mother—my sister—several years ago we lost contact with one another due, I suppose, to the business of living, of encountering obstacles and going over or around or under or ignoring such impediments to life.

He recently found my daughter’s blog, an outstanding compilation and combination of photographs, prose and poetry—click here for a rewarding journey—trust me, you’ll enjoy it! The blogger is one of my three princesses, the one that lives, loves and works in Virginia. Through her blog my nephew found mine, and that discovery prompted his phone call to me. His first words were, “I’m almost out of uncles.”

E pluribus unumbummer!

I offer this brief posting as a harbinger of things to come—this is the first robin of spring, so to speak. My nephew is a tried and true Mississippian whose father was one of 12 children—three girls and nine boys—born to a pastor and his wife in south Mississippi. The church my nephew’s grandfather pastored, Sones Chapel, was founded by his father—my nephew’s great-grandfather—and is still viable, and I intend to use it as the centerpiece—the starting point, if you will—of various postings to come. As a small boy I spent several summer seasons with my sister and her family in that area, and I retain very vivid memories of those days, memories I want to share with others, especially with my nephew and his family.

A special note: Enjoy this brief posting—those that follow will be much longer, and whether interesting or otherwise will require much more of your attention.

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

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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To lay, or to lie—that is the question . . .

And this is the answer: Hens lay—people lie.

The misuse of lay and lie is one of my pet peeves, perhaps the pettiest and peeviest of all.

We hear the verbs misused in every venue—we see it printed in our daily newspapers and other periodicals, and we hear it on radio, on television and in everyday conversations. Medics arriving at an accident scene will invariably tell the injured to lay down, lay still. The medic may report to his home station that he found the injured person laying in a ditch beside the road—and the operator may ask him to repeat the victim’s location by saying, “Repeat, please—where is the victim laying?” As much as I detest repeating myself, I will now repeat myself:

Hens lay—people lie.

Remember when we learned to conjugate verbs? We memorized word groups containing the present, past and future tenses of verbs. The verb to lie, as in lie down, is conjugated as lie, lay, lain—I lie down today, I lay down yesterday, and  by this time tomorrow I will have lain down again. This conjugation is used to reflect the position of something in repose, whether alive or dead, whether animate or inanimate, whether animal, vegetable or mineral and whether prostrate or supine.

A quick explanation here on prostrate versus supine may be in order, just in the highly unlikely possibility that one or more viewers may be confused by the difference between prostrate and supine. Prostrate means lying on one’s stomach (face down), and supine means lying on one’s back (face up).

Special note: Some people sometimes tend to confuse the term prostrate with prostate. The first refers to position—the second is “a gland found at the neck of the bladder in male mammals.” I remember a sentence in a novel that read, “He lay prostate on the altar of Mammon.” The name Mammon, of course, refers to wealth, something regarded as evil, an object of worship and devotion. Medieval writers took Mammon as the name of the devil of covetousness. I suspect that the misspelling of prostrate was a typo, an error made way back in the days before spellcheckers came into use. There is a truth to be learned here—spellcheckers are not infallible.

The verb to lie also refers to truthfulness (or the lack thereof), and is conjugated as follows: lie, lied, lied—I lie today (or I am lying, the gerund form of lie), I lied yesterday, and by this time tomorrow I will have lied again.

The verb to lay also has two very different meanings, as does the verb to lie. It can refer to the hen’s ability to lay an egg (lay, laid, laid), or it may be used to place or put something, also conjugated as lay, laid and laid. Rather that saying “Put (or place) it on the table,” we can say “Lay it on the table.” We can then legitimately say that we laid it on the table, and that by this time tomorrow we will have laid another on the table.

I suppose that a hen could lie down, but in my experience they only sit—or stand, of course. I have never seen a hen lie. However, I have heard hens lie. When I was a child, in a time shrouded in the mists of the past, a cackling hen usually meant that an egg had just been laid. That sound would send me running to the hen house for a quick visual scan of the nests to locate and purloin the egg, still warm after its journey from darkness to the bright light of day, then a quick run to the general store one-quarter mile distant to initiate and complete a business transaction. A dozen eggs in those days cost 60 cents, so I would exchange the egg for a nickel’s worth of something sweet, the buyer’s choice of items ranging from candy to cookies to a Coke. Yes, at that time the green Mae West-shaped bottle of Coca-Cola cost just five cents.

As regards that hen cackling, the cackling did not always indicate that an egg had been laid and was available. There were other situations in which hens cackled. They often cackled when the rooster was in hot pursuit, a cackle engendered by panic or perhaps by anticipation or some alternate feeling. Hens also sometimes cackled shortly after being overtaken by the rooster—whether the cackling indicated pleasure or disappointment is known only by the hen—and the rooster, perhaps. I use the word perhaps because the hen, in any discussion that may have ensued between her and the rooster following their encounter, may have told him things that were somewhat less than truthful, little white lies told so the the rooster would hear that which she knew he wanted, and needed, to hear. Let’s face it, my brothers—it’s well known that some actions of some animals sometimes mirror the actions of humans, both in the psychological sense and the physical sense—they just speak a different language.

A quick application of basic arithmetic to the sale of eggs at sixty cents per dozen:

Armed with the knowledge that twelve of something—anything—equals one dozen, then dividing the cost of a dozen eggs (sixty cents) by the number of eggs in a dozen (twelve) would show that one egg had a value of  five cents, and one might wonder how the store’s proprietor could make a profit. In this instance he was satisfied to break even—he was my uncle, the husband of my mother’s sister, a deeply religious and benevolent man cut down in the prime of his life. He was killed by the actions of a 12-year-old boy, a first-cousin to me and the younger of his two sons.

My cousin’s actions were not deliberate—his father’s death was an accident, avoidable perhaps, but still an unfortunate accident. Unless it sprouts wings and flies (or flees) from my memories and refuses to return, the story of my uncle’s death will be the subject of a future posting.

Stay tuned.


 

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